Deborah Woolford walked to the front of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore on Sunday and rolled up her sleeve to learn firsthand how to treat someone overdosing on opioids.
The 61-year-old Old Goucher woman and another volunteer obliged Dr. Leana S. Wen, Baltimore’s health commissioner, as she demonstrated to the congregation the two ways of administering naloxone, the emergency, overdose-reversing drug known as Narcan.
“When we have an epidemic — when there are 700 people in our city who are dying — you don’t know whose life you could be saving next,” Wen said. “It could be someone you pass on the street, it could be a colleague, it could be a family member.”
Everyday people — not nurses, doctors or police — used naloxone last year to save the lives of more than 1,625 people in the city, Wen said. Lynda Burton, chair of Brown Memorial’s Urban Witness Group, said Sunday’s event was planned in the knowledge that some might balk at the idea of teaching the treatment in a church.
“We are all overwhelmed by this crisis, and we thought, ‘What can we do?’ ” Burton said. “A big thing is reducing the stigma, to come to know that addiction is a disease.”
Still, something about the recent groundswell of awareness and support services around the national opioid epidemic has rankled Woolford, a student at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
Heroin is not new to Baltimore. When Woolford’s grandfather died of an overdose years ago, there was no talk of addiction’s being a mental illness and embracing addicts with treatments, counseling and other help. For a black man addicted to heroin at that time, she said, there were three options: “jail, an institution or death.”
“I just was mad about that,” she said. “Now that the color has changed, there’s so much more money in treatment.”
Woolford said she was glad to hear Wen discuss the racial disparities in the ways addiction has been viewed.
Wen also pushed back on the criticism of naloxone and needle exchanges as encouraging drug use.
“Would you ever say to someone whose throat is closing from a peanut allergy, ‘I’m sorry, but this Epipen is going to encourage you to eat peanuts?’ ” she asked.
Wen and the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, Brown Memorial’s senior pastor, didn’t duck from institutional blame.
The medical industry partially caused the epidemic by over-prescribing opioids, Wen acknowledged, even saying she’d been guilty of doing so herself.
“We didn’t mean to do a bad thing, but we, in part, contributed to how we got here today,” Wen said.
Foster Connors didn’t overlook the church’s role in stigmatizing addiction as a moral failing.
“We have addiction within our families,” he said. “We need to tell the truth about who we are, and it will help us all find the healing we need. … Everything has to start with a confession, but we don’t end there. We use that as energy, as motivation going forward.”
Baltimore’s top doctor listed the various steps the city is taking to fight the epidemic.
Wen issued a standing order last year that amounted to a blanket prescription for naloxone for city residents, making the drug available over the counter.
The police department is now directing some addicts in West Baltimore into treatment, rather than charging them with offenses, through a program known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.
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And the health department is partnering with faith groups, neighborhood associations and other organizations in the city to bring the issue to the fore, Wen said.
Only one out of 10 people living with addiction is able to get the help they need, she said.
“For what other disease would we ever find that to be acceptable?” Wen asked.
Miranda Hall, 29, a Georgetown University adjunct professor, freelance playwright and member of Brown Memorial since childhood, said she was not surprised to see the church wading into the opioid epidemic with an action as progressive as a Narcan demonstration in the church.
“This church preaches with a newspaper in one hand and a bible in the other,” she said. “The problems in the world are our problems here. People come to this church to deepen their engagement in the world around them.”
During a question-and-answer session with Wen after the demonstration, two women in the congregation identified themselves as recovering drug addicts.
They received standing ovations.