Editors' Notebook

Opioid Crisis in Rural America -- What's in Your Medicine Cabinet?

Elaine Shein
By  Elaine Shein , Associate Managing Editor
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While opioids can help people deal with pain, such as after a farm injury or illness, they can also lead to tragedy if proper care isn't taken. (DTN file photo)

Maybe you have a chronic aching back, after twisting wrong once while getting down from a tractor or perhaps when shoveling grain. Or you still get recurring pain because of broken bones in your foot from the time an ungrateful, ornery cow stepped on you as you tried to help her with her new calf.

Or there was the time you were rushing with the harvest and didn't get an infected tooth dealt with soon enough and that led to bigger dental problems. Or there was that old football injury from high school. Or maybe you had some serious illness, such as cancer, and you found yourself begging for ways to relieve the pain triggered by chemotherapy treatments.

When the doctors offered you some strong painkillers for those injuries, to recover from surgeries, or to handle an illness, you probably gratefully and willingly accepted those opioids.

You thought those pills would end the problem, but instead they possessed the potential to be just the beginning of a nightmare. Instead of opening Pandora's Box, imagine this moment as opening Pandora's pill bottle, unleashing many evils.

Imagine either you got hooked on the painkillers -- and became desperate to get more for the next few months, years or decades -- or even worse, your children or grandchildren easily found them in your medicine cabinet. They gobbled down a few, or maybe shared them with their friends, out of curiosity, dares or desire.

And maybe someone accidentally died, much too young, from an opioid overdose.

Suddenly, a very sobering statistic from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation hit home. Between 1999 and 2016, 351,602 people died in the United States from opioid overdoses. In rural areas especially, the numbers have been spiking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that the rural drug overdose rate jumped from four to 17 per 100,000 residents between 1999 and 2015.

How many of these lives could have been saved? How can you, or someone you love, avoid becoming the next opioid addict or victim?

Earlier this year in spring, DTN Staff Reporter Todd Neeley offered to do a special project for the next few months. The result is Pandora's Pill Bottle, a special seven-part series that began to run on DTN on Dec. 17. The series takes a closer look at the impact of opioid addiction on rural America, how it became such a big problem, and what is being done about opioids.

Neeley spoke with more than 20 sources, went through 25 different studies, as well as sifted through a pile of government committee testimonies, and relied on other resources.

His stories look at various angles, including why people abuse opioids, the personal tragedy of losing a loved one to an overdose, the national economic impact of opioid abuse, and the actual steps that are already being taken in some rural communities against the opioid problems.

To the farmers who are recovered addicts, family members of addicts, employers, experts, government officials and so many others who took time for the interviews, thank you -- especially to those who shared such deeply personal experiences and details from their lives.

"I talk to kids at school and tell them this is your one shot," Indiana farmer Doug Payne, a former addict, said. "One time and you could die. You'll see people eight to nine months clean, then dead the next day from overdose."

There are signs of hope, like Randy Hedrick, another Indiana farmer, who talked about his recovery from being an addict. "You can get through it," Hedrick said. "When you're addicted, you're self-centered. When you get clean, you start caring about others. When it's gone, it's hard to deal with at first -- the emotions. You'll have highs and lows."

North Carolina pastor Donnie Griggs put in perspective how big the problem is, as he goes with ambulances to overdose emergencies. "It's affecting every facet of society," Griggs said. "I'm in mansions and I'm in trailer parks. It acts like a bomb and not a bullet ... It is in the school system, kids are trading drugs."

The country and rural areas can't be totally cured from the opioid abuse affliction, but there are steps individuals, schools, communities, local and national organizations and even government officials can do to help fight back.

This includes everything from avoiding farm injuries, to having emergency care and more medical experts available in small towns, to educating students in schools about drug dangers, to developing more take-back programs for unused, unwanted or expired medications. Seeking alternative methods to control pain and keeping a closer eye on prescribing painkillers also show promising results.

Allow Neeley's series to be part of opening or expanding the dialogue on how to be more responsible with opioids in your home and community.

While Pandora's Pill Bottle can never be totally closed, there is still hope and precious lives that can be saved.

To see the first two stories in the series, check out:

Pandora's Pill Bottle - 1

https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Pandora's Pill Bottle - 2

https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Elaine Shein can be reached at eshein@yahoo.com

(AG/)

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