Opioid-awareness event encourages action, remembrance in New London

From left, Betsy and Eddie Torruella and Dwight Baldwin of New London talk to pharmacist Gina Wassef, second from right, of The Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy about how pharmacists can prescribe Narcan nasal spray during the  'A Time to Remember ... a Time to Act' overdose awareness and prevention event at Williams Park in New London on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017.  Pharmacist technician Bhea Barroga assists Wassef at the Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy table.  The event was hosted by the opioid action team of the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
From left, Betsy and Eddie Torruella and Dwight Baldwin of New London talk to pharmacist Gina Wassef, second from right, of The Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy about how pharmacists can prescribe Narcan nasal spray during the "A Time to Remember ... a Time to Act" overdose awareness and prevention event at Williams Park in New London on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. Pharmacist technician Bhea Barroga assists Wassef at the Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy table. The event was hosted by the opioid action team of the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

New London — Scrawled in blue Sharpie on a poster board hanging in Williams Park on Thursday was a number — 4,383 — that surely represented hours and days of struggle.

Twelve years of making new friends. Twelve years of overcoming cravings. Twelve years of seeing old friends lose their battles. Twelve years of sobriety.

But accompanying the four digits on that board was a simple message: “It’s a whole new life, the one I wanted (while) strung out dreaming of better days. Believe.”

The poster board-filled tent, which offered messages of hope as well as memorials to loved ones lost, was just one aspect of an event titled “A Time to Remember ... a Time to Act.” Organized by the regional Opioid Action Team, the effort ran in conjunction with International Overdose Awareness Day and featured experts dealing in just about every aspect of the opioid crisis.

There was The Medicine Shoppe, which was discussing naloxone with visitors. There were treatment providers, such as Sound Community Services and the Southeastern Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, and medical professionals. Members of Alliance for Living were letting folks know about their new syringe exchange program. Narcotics Anonymous had a booth. So did Community Speaks Out and about 10 others.

Police were on hand, too, collecting unwanted medications as well as distributing Deterra pouches designed to deactivate the active ingredients in prescription drugs. People can place their pills in a pouch and just add warm water to neutralize the pills, which then can be safely thrown away.

Anyone who missed the event can get a Deterra pouch by contacting Ledge Light Health District and asking for Jennifer Muggeo, supervisor of administration, finance and special projects. Residents also can visit their local police departments, most of which have a prescription drug drop box in their lobbies, to dispose of unwanted medications.

“We believe in the partnership and understand there’s a need for this,” New London police Capt. Brian Wright said. “We're really glad to be here and to help out."

The location of the event — smack in the middle of the city on a beautiful day — was intentional: A major goal of the action team is to reduce the stigma surrounding substance use in part by increasing visibility.

On Thursday morning, Muggeo said she hoped folks from all walks of life would come out — people actively struggling with substance use, people living in various stages of recovery, people who know a person who knows a person who’s struggling.

“Substance use disorder is a disease like any other and it should not be in the shadows as much as it is,” she said. “This impacts all of us.”

Though the booths sprawled across a green in New London, Muggeo was quick to point out that substance use disorder is not just a New London problem.

Data the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released Monday show Connecticut’s on track to see 1,078 fatal overdoses in 2017, with a projected 86 in southeastern Connecticut. If the deaths continue at the same pace, 38 of those overdoses, or 44 percent, will have taken place in Norwich alone.

“Of course we all wish the numbers were lower,” Muggeo said. “But they’re not surprising. This is a problem in our communities and across the state.”

On Thursday morning, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy hosted a bill-signing ceremony as he officially turned the state’s latest opioid-related legislation into law. The event intentionally aligned with International Overdose Awareness Day.

And, following the release of the new data on Monday, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy both weighed in with statements, using words like “devastating” and “shocking” to describe the numbers.

The Opioid Action Team, a collaborative of more than two dozen area health, social services and emergency services agencies, has been meeting once a month for about six months now, Muggeo said.

Following Thursday’s event, the team's next plan is to target neighborhoods with a higher-than-average number of emergency calls for overdoses. They want to stock those communities with naloxone, Muggeo explained — in businesses, in restaurants, in homes.

Overall, the group’s goal is to increase access to evidenced-based treatment and make a more streamlined process whereby people in all stages of addiction and recovery can obtain an individualized and effective treatment plan.

“I hope that the (half year) numbers move our policymakers at the state and federal levels to free up the resources necessary to make that happen,” Muggeo said.

l.boyle@theday.com

Some of the information tables available at 'A Time to Remember ... a Time to Act' overdose awareness and prevention event at Williams Park in New London on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. The event was hosted by the opioid action team of the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Some of the information tables available at "A Time to Remember ... a Time to Act" overdose awareness and prevention event at Williams Park in New London on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. The event was hosted by the opioid action team of the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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