She sat there — poised, bright-eyed, and polished — in a gilded room in Washington with US senators, a top White House official, a surgeon, medical officers, and the nation’s preeminent experts on a cruel scourge now sweeping the nation.
You could be forgiven if you thought, as Sherri Harrison’s turn to speak arrived, that she would introduce herself as a distinguished professor from some Ivy League think tank.
Instead, this is what she said: “I didn’t have much of a life to lose. I was an addict.’’
The opiate abuse epidemic is leaking poisonously into every corner of our society. Harrison’s harrowing story is typical in many respects. What makes her remarkable is the escape route she found — the narrow treatment ladder she climbed to rescue herself from heroin hell.
Now 31, she was born in Springfield. Raised in a family in which both parents and many relatives were addicts or alcoholics, she was on her own by age 16. She dropped out of Somerville High School in her senior year.
“I didn’t feel like I had people who cared about me,’’ she told me. “I had nothing.’’
And then, even that was gone. She tended bar. She waitressed. Mostly she was a drug addict. Four weeks into her first pregnancy in 2009 and desperate to stay clean, she found salvation at a fifth-floor clinic at Boston Medical Center.
There, amid blond wood paneling and gleaming tile floors, a team of clinicians carefully dispensed a prescription drug that addicts around Greater Boston are, quite literally, dying to get their hands on.
It’s called buprenorphine. And it is a treatment drug not without controversy. Known colloquially as bupe, it controls cravings and softens symptoms of withdrawal. It is considered less socially stigmatizing than methadone, because it can be prescribed in a doctor’s office, not a free-standing clinic.
Some rogue doctors have overprescribed it, helping to feed a bupe black market.
But this is war. And Colleen LaBelle, director of opioid treatment at BMC, says its benefits far outstrip its risks. LaBelle, a registered nurse, says it’s indefensible and outrageous that just 4 percent of the 625,000 physicians in the United States eligible to prescribe this drug have received the federal certification required to do so.
“We have this amazing tool, and we’re underutilizing it,’’ she said at the Albany Street clinic where more than 100 patients are seen weekly and a growing list of addicts wait for a drug prescribed only after careful assessment, screening, and close counseling.
LaBelle introduced Harrison at the June forum in Washington, telling a story she repeated for me at the clinic this week. A young Brockton woman, desperate for help, lingered on the BMC waiting list. Five months pregnant, she resisted treatment at a methadone treatment because of the accompanying stigma.
“Her mother found her dead on her bed,’’ Labelle said. “She looked like the cheerleader next door. And she died on the waiting list.’’
Some 2.5 million Americans are addicted to opioids. Buprenorphine is a powerful arrow in the clinicians’ quiver. Many specialists say it’s being squandered.
Like LaBelle, Dr. Sandra Looby-Gordon, an addiction specialist and Harrison’s primary care doc at BMC, knows the drug is not perfect, but she has seen first-hand its life-changing effects.
“Sometimes these patients need a couple of chances before they’re ready,’’ she said. “And then, all of a sudden, it clicks. The cravings are down, and they’re able to stay clean.’’
It’s an epidemic. The numbers are staggering. If this drug succeeds even half the time, it’s worth a try, these people in the trenches compellingly argue. No one should have to wait for this crucial care.
Yet the waiting list at BMC is growing again. People are desperate for the salvation that Harrison found.
“It’s not just the drug,’’ she said, noting the importance of counseling. “But it works. You can stay clean.’’
She found the ladder. And then climbed out of heroin’s hell.