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Digging Deeper into the Opioid Epidemic: Ending the Stigma of Addiction to Save Lives

Onondaga County Health Department

As the heroin epidemic continues unabated, a paramedic who’s responded to drug overdoses for decades says it’s time to lift the stigma of addiction.  In this final part in our series, he says thinking differently might get more people the help they need…and save lives.

Director of Operations for TLC ambulance Lon Fricano says the more we talk about addiction and bring it out of the shadows, the stronger prevention and treatment efforts can be. 

"Nobody has to be ashamed to go to the doctor and say 'my blood sugar is too high'.  You shouldn't have to be ashamed to go to a doctor and say 'I'm addicted to opiates, I need help.'   But people do.  They feel like they're criminals, that they're somehow subhuman.  It's just awful.  It's a terrible, terrible injustice, not to mention the damage the disease and drugs are doing."

Fricano is also president of the Heroin Epidemic Action League, or HEAL, in Auburn.   He says long waits for treatment are unacceptable for someone taking the big step of seeking help.

"If they're told to 'come back in six weeks, maybe we can help you then.'  What are you really telling them?  You're telling them to go back to the street and keep using.  If you showed up on the doorstep of the hospital with chest pain, would they tell you to come back in six weeks?"

This is from a Syracuse Behavioral Healthcare newsletter in September 2016.

For the addict…and certainly the person with chest pain, it would probably be too late.  Fricano says it’s critical to put pressure on the system to allocate resources and change the way opioid addiction is viewed and treated.  He recalls the response to a single case of Ebola in Texas to put the crisis in perspective.

"People were handing out protective suits, having drills, developing protocols and procedures , having meetings, and they went right off the deep end.  It was one instance of a problem.  We're losing 200 to 300 people a day from this [epidemic], and there's an inertia to get things done."

Fricano says the response is no match for the magnitude of the heroin supply and distribution network.

"We're just looking at the tip of the iceberg.  Can you imagine the organization and delivery system that's saturating every square inch of every community, every town, every city, every village, out in the country, everyplace with this problem.  It's mind boggling."