As Dr. Antje Barreveld trained for the Boston Marathon this summer, her emotions were like fuel, propelling her for miles through the scorching heat and persistent rain.
The medical director of pain management services at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Barreveld sees the devastating effects of opioid addiction firsthand, and how the crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
On one July day, she struggled to leave the strain of work behind. But with each stride, her stress and sadness gave way to a euphoric, life-affirming sensation, a runner’s high.
In a year of so much loss, she savored this sense of joy. And she wanted to help her patients, and anyone trying to overcome drug addiction, to be able to experience it, too.
That wish inspired Barreveld to help create the newest landmark along the Boston Marathon route: a 2,104-flag memorial to the Massachusetts residents who died from opioid overdoses last year. The purple and red display — with red flags representing those hospital staff knew — will stretch across the hospital’s front lawn on Route 16.
“It all intersected for me. It reminds me that I’m not running for myself,” said Barreveld, an anesthesiologist who is running the marathon for SOAR, a Natick-based support group for parents of children suffering from opioid addiction. “Every time I feel that sensation, I feel more excited to have the opportunity.”
The display was sponsored by SOAR and the hospital’s Substance Use Services program, which Barreveld and her colleague Dr. Catharina Armstrong founded in 2017.
With the arrival of the pandemic last year, opioid-related deaths increased by the highest single-year percentage since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Massachusetts remains an epicenter of the crisis, with a death toll among the nation’s highest.
The death toll continues to climb amid the economic devastation and social isolation caused by the pandemic and as efforts to strengthen the state’s treatment services stall. There’s an urgent need to improve access to care and reduce the greatest barrier to seeking help: the stigma around addiction, the doctors said.
Barreveld and Armstong said they hope the sea of purple and red flags will bring attention to the magnitude of the opioid epidemic and encourage open conversations about addiction among family and friends.
Armstrong, the associate director of the Substance Use Service program and member of the Infectious diseases staff, said everyone is affected by addiction in some way. But shame, lack of education, and resources prevent many from seeking care.
“We need to erase the stigma,” said Armstrong, who is running to raise money for the Boston Bulldogs Running Club, which promotes recovery. “We are not hiding behind the disease of addiction and we’re not hiding the increase in overdoses. The only way we can get to the root [of the problem] is to start talking about it.”
Barreveld said she’s extremely proud that the hospital decided the display is “something worthy of showing the world.” For those affected by the epidemic, it will send a message of visibility and validation, she said.
“It’s not only a sad moment,” Barreveld said. “It’s an invigorating moment.”
As the director of education and outreach on the Substance Use Service team, Barreveld has worked to change the language doctors and families use to discuss addiction.
“Addiction is a disease. It’s not that our patients have committed a moral failure, or are not strong, or have an underlying mental illness,” she said. “It’s a disease. And there is hope and treatment.”
Addressing addiction as a disease leads to more evidence-based treatment and reduces levels of personal guilt, she said. Many patients hesitate to seek help because they fear it will negatively impact their personal relationships or their employment, the doctors said.
“Each of these flags represents an opportunity to speak up and get help,” Armstrong said.
When Armstrong and Barreveld run by the memorial Monday, they expect to feel a rush of hope that will push them up Heartbreak Hill and carry them through the last 10 miles.
“I will remember that I’m running for those who can’t,” Armstrong said.
Julia Carlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.