BREWER, Maine — Brendan John Keating of Brunswick passed away Dec. 16, 2013 after a fierce and courageous battle with the intractable disease of addiction, his obituary states.
His parents, two well-known Maine doctors, spoke passionately Tuesday about how heroin took their son’s life.
A roundtable meeting about the highly addictive opiate, hosted by U.S. Sen. Angus King, drew about 100 people in recovery or who provide drug treatment, work in law enforcement or with tribal members and others. It was attended by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, Maine U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Delahanty II, National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli, and representatives from the offices of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin.
“As you all know, relapse is common and that is what happened with Brendan,” his mother, Saco psychiatrist Lynn Ouellette, told those at the meeting, held on the Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems’ campus in Brewer.
By ignoring the problem with their son, the family had “arrogant attrition,” South Portland medical oncologist Thomas Keating said.
“We believed it just couldn’t happen to a family like ours,” Keating said of the heroin overdose death that ripped his two-doctor family apart. “Addiction, I have found, is an incredibly powerful force that transcends education levels [and] every segment of society. It can happen to anybody when you just don’t expect it.”
Brendan Keating is one of the growing number of Mainers who have fallen prey to heroin and have overdosed on the street drug in recent years. In fact, 2014 was the worst year in Maine history for drug overdose deaths with 208 — 57 blamed on heroin and 43 attributed to fentanyl. In the first six months of this year, 105 Mainers already have died in drug poisonings.
“Our focus today is to try and talk about what works,” King said at the start of the roundtable.
“No one aspect will be able to solve this,” he said later.
Pingree talked about changing the stigma attached to those who overdose on drugs, recalling a recent funeral for the son of a friend who died after using heroin.
“Every person sits around the room and says, ‘How could this have happened,’” the 1st District congresswoman said. “It’s gone far beyond thinking, ‘It’s not going to happen here.’”
She described the stories told at the event as “very raw” and advocated for treatment and an after-program safety net that helps with food, housing and job placement.
Gov. Paul LePage is holding a drug abuse prevention summit Wednesday in Augusta, with state and federal law enforcement and addiction treatment professionals at the table. Some at Tuesday’s conference criticized the governor for his emphasis on the law and justice system to deal with substance addiction in Maine.
Six new Maine Drug Enforcement Agency investigators, two new drug prosecutors, two new judges and two new court clerks were added to the rolls earlier this year under LePage’s direction.
“One of the things we know is that this is not just a law enforcement issue,” Botticelli said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem. We need to give people real preventive care.”
The National Drug Control Policy director said states need to create community health clinics and that $100 million recently has been allocated through the Substance Abuse Service Expansion Technology Assistance grants to fund them. In addition, 15 states, including Maine, were awarded $2.5 million last week to fund a heroin response strategy by creating public health-public safety partnerships.
Dr. Eric Brown, a family physician in Maine since 1981 and faculty member at the Eastern Maine Medical Center’s Family Medicine Center, said changes are needed, especially when Bangor is the hub for those in drug therapy treatment for all of northern Maine.
“Nobody should have to travel more than half an hour to get services,” Brown said.
He also said the stigma about people taking methadone, Suboxone and other drug therapy treatments also needs to stop.
“We have to stop thinking about it as [if] we’re coddling criminals,” Brown said.
Delahanty said there has been positive movement within the justice system.
“There has really been a sea change in law enforcement,” the state’s U.S. attorney for Maine said. “It’s not just arrest everybody, put them in jail and lock them up.”
Instead, law enforcement officials are trying to get those on drugs into programs that help, but “there needs to be more treatment available,” Delahanty said.
Many others attending the roundtable agreed. People also asked for funding to pay for training, education, workforce development and housing components, as well as changing laws involving insurance and adding methadone patient lists to the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. Eliminating federal barriers about who can prescribe Suboxone and adding physician’s assistants and nurse practitioners to the list was mentioned several times.
Botticelli also said that as a past drug user, he wants those in the throes of addiction to know he changed his life for the better and so can they.
“There is such hope on the other side of this,” Botticelli said. “Part of what we want to do is show people there is hope.”
Ouellette and Keating know nothing will bring back their son, who is survived by a twin brother and an older sister, but they also know nothing will change unless a real conversation about heroin and drug addiction is started.
“It’s amazing how much the public needs to be educated,” Ouellette said. “Judgment and stigma are so prolific that it is an obstacle of treatment.”
King said at the end of Tuesday’s roundtable that he hopes the gathering is the first of many about how to address the problem of drug addiction in Maine and that he will strive in Washington to ensure Mainers have the resources needed to combat the growing heroin problem in the state.