Kelley Strout is pictured at the One Life Project event at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on May 4, 2016. Credit: Contributed by Jeff Kirlin

Last summer I returned to Bangor, the community I love and where I was born and raised. There were two drug-related shootings and deaths in the same week. I was well aware that opiate addiction was a nationwide problem, but the thought of the disease consuming my community infuriated me.

I started attending community meetings and neighborhood watch groups about the crisis, and I learned how much work we need to do to help our community. In May, I attended the One Life Project, organized by the Maine Focus team at the Bangor Daily News and many other area health organizations, and learned how addiction-related stigma and prejudice hold many people back.

At the end of the event, everyone was asked to make a pledge to do something to help end the opiate epidemic. I pledged to reduce the next generation of nurses’ stigma related to drug addiction.

How would I do it? In the fall, I decided to invite Trip Gardner, the medical and clinical director of Penobscot Community Health Care, to speak to my students about the physiology of addiction. I also asked two people in recovery from heroin addiction to talk to my class about their journey into and away from substance use.

I am well aware that opiate addiction is a public health crisis, but I was overcome with emotion when I opened the class by asking this question: “Please stand if someone you love has died from a heroin overdose.” Half of my students stood up.

Then I asked, “Please stand if someone you know is struggling with heroin or opiate addiction.” Finally I asked, “Please stand if you have cared for a patient in the hospital who is addicted to heroin or opiates.”

All 42 of my nursing students were standing.

At that moment, I looked out into the crowd of students and saw the mother of a friend I grew up with. She’s an amazing mother who raised her children in a loving home. They were kind, motivated, strong, intelligent people, and yet there she was, sitting in my class, waiting for her son to share his story about how he nearly died from a heroin overdose.

The moment caught me by surprise, and I cried. In front of all the students and the speakers, tears rolled down my face.

I knew I was taking a risk when I planned the class. It’s always difficult to know how a guest speaker will work out the first time in a classroom. Adding the variables of heroin, addiction and recovery through a faith-based program increased the risk. The class would either have a major effect or fail miserably.

But I believe a community can’t continue as usual if it wants to end a crisis. Taking calculated risks is part of moving an issue forward.

Fortunately, the class was more powerful than I could have imagined, and students responded overwhelmingly with positive feedback. Here are just some of their responses:

— Dr. Gardner provided insight into the science behind addiction and why people do it. It also gave me even more of a reason to provide non-biased patient care to help those in need of addiction treatment.

— I loved hearing the personal stories of addiction. It makes addiction more personal, relatable and understandable. Addiction truly is a disease, not just a choice, and listening to the speakers talk about their experiences reinforced this concept for me. 

— It changed my viewpoint in a positive way. Addiction can feel rather hopeless, but hearing the speakers talk about all the success they have experienced/witnessed was an inspiration.

— I learned that there is no “group” that this happens to; it can be anyone.

— I think in nursing school we surround ourselves with westernized medicine, and it’s important to realize alternatives may work better for some people and that it’s not our duty to decide for them.

— The guest speakers’ stories make me think about how spirituality can play a major role in the recovery of the patient. It’s imperative that we offer holistic care to our patients.

We could begin to restore the fabric of our community if we all made small contributions to ending stigma. We all have a great responsibility to act. Addiction has affected every member of the community.

I encourage others to act today. Share your story, support all treatment programs, promote prevention efforts, foster a child, volunteer to rock babies in the neonatal intensive care unit who are born narcotic-exposed, send a card to a friend who is coping with a child addicted to heroin or opiates, send a card to physicians and nurses who are caring for those addicted on a daily basis.

There are hundreds of ways everyone can get involved in this crisis. I encourage you to do it, for all of us.

Kelley Strout is an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Maine.