Pandemic relief, epidemic crisis
This is a reprint of a column written by Arkansas Municipal League Director Mark Hayes in that organization's Cities & Towns magazine.
By Chris Villines
AAC Executive Director
In so many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a departure from reality. Many things we held to be paradigms in our life have shifted. Truth has become fiction, and vice-versa. These are unsettling times, further complicated by social unrest and divisive politics and media. As the coroners can attest, this has driven up drug use, and unfortunately suicides as well. I highly recommend you read Becky Comet’s column later in this issue of County Lines as she helps to navigate what effects you and your loved ones may be seeing.
At the AAC, we continue to churn away at one of the aggressors that figures so prevalently in these times, an opioid industry that has historically turned its face to profits and a deaf ear to society. Sometimes there are sobering reminders that this industry hits painfully close to all of us, and a few weeks ago on a Saturday I’ll never forget hearing the excruciating pain in my good friend Mark Hayes’ voice as he relayed to me that the industry had taken another life … that of one of his children, Wells.
As the Executive Director at the Arkansas Municipal League, he and I have been counterparts, colleagues and more than this, friends in our roles together. We locked arms several years ago to fight against the opioid industry in Arkansas, not knowing at the time where it would take his family. I am sad but honored to have permission to reprint his article in a recent City & Town magazine edition — and I reprint this to share his story … and to remind you why we are in this fight together with our cities in Arkansas:
By the time you read this I’m hopeful our state will have begun its rebirth from COVID-19. Not too fast mind you, but rather a logical and rational approach just as our governor has led us from the start but in reverse.1 I think many things will change for us over the next few years. People will continue to social distance although perhaps not as strictly as we’re doing now. We’ll work at home more. We’ll use disinfectant wipes and sprays more than we ever have. Anybody coughing or sneezing will no doubt make us anxious for many years to come. We won’t think of headaches as we have in the past nor the loss of taste or smell. Shortness of breath may yield a 911 call rather than a brief respite. I suspect many of us will have groceries and other staples delivered to our homes. If we go to a store of any kind, we’ll pick off hours in hopes there won’t be very many people. Telemedicine will likely become the new normal for routine doctor visits. I wonder about movie theaters and small restaurants. Will they survive or change somehow? And what about traditional handshakes? What do we do, the Vulcan salute?2 Peace signs?3 And hugs, what about hugs?! And yes, we’ll certainly wash our hands more. It may take months or even years for our society to fully deal with the coronavirus, but we will. A vaccine will be invented and, like so many other killer viruses, COVID-19 will wither on the vine and die.
Unfortunately, our journey to health as Arkansans will not end with a COVID-19 vaccine. No, there’s another killer on the loose and it hasn’t yet been fully addressed. We will be leaving the virus pandemic but remain in a deadlier, more long-standing epidemic that in many instances hasn’t been dealt with. I speak of course, of the epidemic of opioid addictions, overdoses and deaths. By the time you read this my 23-year-old son4 will have been dead from such an overdose for nearly a month. Four or five weeks will have passed since he collapsed, passed out and drifted into death. He is now part of a lost generation. His best friend suffered the same fate just over two years ago. And then, horrifically, two days after Wells died another good friend he met in rehab passed away. My son Wells suffered so much after his best pal died. He lived an anguished life over the past 24 months. Near-death experiences from overdoses certainly weren’t everyday occurrences with him, but they happened often enough that we knew what the drill was. We knew the need for chest compressions, counting one, two, three, four while listening to the neutral calm voice of the 911 dispatcher. We knew that help would arrive quickly. We knew Narcan could be administered with near-miraculous results. We also knew it was too late this last time. I tried. Nearly two minutes of me pushing on his chest. Oh, how I tried.
Many other friends of my children have died. I can quickly count five without even trying. With just a little effort the number gets closer to 10. It happens so frequently that there’s almost a callousness from the remainder of us. “Oh, there’s another one. When will it end?” Well, when will it end? How many people must die? Like the coronavirus, opioid addiction knows no boundaries. Wealthy, poor, educated or not, male, female. If you know a group of people under 30 or 35 there is a high likelihood that someone in that group has an opioid problem. Lots of them start on pills, “hydros” and “oxys.”5 Some don’t do pills but try other things. Regardless, in all too many instances black tar heroin is just plain cheap. Just a few dollars for a hit.
As I’ve said many times, the illegal drug manufacturing world cares nothing about the quality control of their product. Thus, it matters little that the concentration of the drug or the mixture with death traps like fentanyl are so high that death is a very real possibility even for the most casual of users. In some instances, what’s sold as heroin may in reality be fentanyl. One may as well put a gun to their head if that’s the case. That’s a high that nobody recovers from. These drugs produce a high that ends in a pleading, screaming mother wanting her child back. They cause funerals attended by family torn to shreds by the death of a young person whose life had just barely begun. Grief so very profound that it hurts. It quite literally hurts in the chest as though a force so strong is tearing through the rib cage and brutalizing the heart. It is the worst possible thing to witness and be a part of. It is my reality and it is the reality of my wife Alison. My dear precious spouse now faces motherhood with only three of her four children. She faces every waking minute without her baby boy. And she faces most sleeping minutes tortured with horrible visions and what ifs. That is the harsh, vicious and brutal truth of opioid addiction. That is our life now and forever more.
The combination of COVID-19 and opioids in Arkansas is a hell on earth. We are lucky, however, because we are assured by virtually every expert that a vaccine will be created for the virus and it likely will be done in record time. That would be a miracle for sure. But our society will continue with this plague of addiction caused by manufacturers and distributors placing profits before people. They value cold hard cash more than Wells, more than his friends and more than an entire generation. Amid our new normal of social distancing, there is a new surge of fatal opioid overdoses. That’s right — while taking precautions to stay away from the pandemic, the epidemic is killing at a record pace. There are multiple reasons this is happening. Certainly, the stress and depression of being alone leads some away from sobriety and into the warm, welcoming death hug of heroin. For others the inability to get to daily or weekly sobriety meetings or church services pushes them to use again. And for those who use suboxone in their fight for sobriety, the inability to get to the doctor or the clinic or both to get the prescription updated leads to the same dark place. I fear we’ll see more suffering and more death. I fear for my children, your children and grandchildren. I fear for my grieving wife. I fear for Wells’ dad, his aunts and uncles, and his grandparents.
All is not lost. There are some simple steps that can save lives. Learn CPR. Carry a dose of Narcan. Talk to your kids and their friends. More importantly, listen to your kids and their friends regardless of whether you like what you’re hearing. The truth is often ugly and painful. Ignoring the truth is worse. Ignoring equals death, plain and simple.
What else can be done?
Most of you good readers are familiar with the League’s litigation efforts taken in conjunction with the Association of Arkansas Counties. As I’m writing this, the likelihood of a favorable settlement is beginning to emerge from the fog and rhetoric that accompanies most large cases. Litigation seldom completely solves societal problems. Those problems are solved by the commitment and work of people on the front lines. It starts with parents, teachers, counselors, doctors, friends, clergy … this list goes on and on. Together we can solve this opioid epidemic. Together we can help those with addiction. COVID-19 will have an injectable vaccine soon. The opioid vaccine isn’t in a tube with plunger and needle. We are the opioid vaccine. We need the dollars that a settlement may bring, for sure, but the reality is the citizens of this state have to fight this evil together. That and that alone will defeat this epidemic. We can win for Wells and every other person stricken with this plague and for every family and friend that is tortured by the loss of a loved one.
I’ve written many, many things in my life, but this has been the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted. Strangely, there’s a small catharsis in seeing the words in black and white on my laptop screen. Not complete by any stretch of the imagination, but a start. Frankly, I don’t think my family as a whole or individually will ever be the same, particularly Alison. Mothers do indeed have a stronger bond to children. I’ve seen the anguish up close and personal. She suffers because she carried him for nine months and nurtured him from infancy to manhood. She was a great mom to Wells and is a great mom to Franz, Bliss and Colin. I need to give credit where credit is due. Alison helped me by proofing this. The reality, however, is that we co-authored this column. I’ve done nothing more than repeat the many conversations she and I have had during the past two weeks and likely will have for the remainder of our lives.
As I conclude on this bright sunny day, I can see Alison and our dogs on our back deck. They are in the shade looking into the trees. It is a perfect day made for fishing or golfing, two of Wells’ favorite hobbies. I think it’s a small sign from above. Wells is no longer tortured by addiction, and in that sunshine there is hope that we can defeat both the pandemic and the epidemic.
Until next month, Peace.
Mark R. Hayes
Arkansas Municipal League
1As of May 5, 2020, the governor’s emergency declaration was extended 45 days. Several categories of businesses have been allowed to open or partially open including barbers and hair salons.
2Leonard Nimoy portrayed Spock in the long-running TV and movie series Star Trek. Nimoy invented the Vulcan hand gesture by borrowing from a tradition in Orthodox Judaism. The hand gesture first appeared in the first episode of the second season of the original TV show in 1967. QZ.com, Baltimore Sun and Wikipedia.
3The hand gesture of raising both the index and middle fingers is widely known as a sign of peace in the United States although in other countries certain variations are considered insults.
4Wells Curry Bratton came into my life in 2007 when I married Alison. He and his sister became instantly close with my sons and as our relationships deepened I simply referred to them as my children. My three boys and my daughter. Legally, Wells was my stepson, but his mother and I raised him with his father, giving him three parents. Recently one of Wells’ friends described our family as the most “unblended blended family” she had ever seen. She meant that as a compliment noting that we were a family without notations of step or biological. Just a loving, caring family of six that is now down to five.
5Hydrocodone and Oxycodone.
Mark, Alison, family and Municipal League friends — God Bless you and comfort you in these times. And may our forthcoming victory over the opioid industry honor the memory of Wells and so many others.