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Hospital leads proactive effort in opioids crisis

It started with a prescription from a doctor. It ended with somebody's child lying unresponsive on a bed, a couch or the floor. Somebody's loved one lay there in vomit, breathing so slowly and then not at all, staring with pinpointed eyes as their lips and fingernails turned blue. The pain they could not live with continues on, emotionally and even financially, to their families and future generations.

There are doctors who thought their patients would not become addicts. There are patients who thought the same. There are employers who had to let workers go when they could not do their jobs. There are families who try desperately and usually unsuccessfully to cope as they watch their loved ones' lives and their own lives deteriorate.

There are addicts who discover they could acquire prescription pain pills, sell them at a high price and ease their addictions with less expensive drugs. There are pharmacists who ignored suspicions and filled the prescriptions, and there are the street dealers who bought and sold their pills. There are law enforcers who could only arrest them, judges who could only sentence them, jailers who could only let them go when the jail got full.

There are first responders who could only try to save them, and coroner's deputies who could only zip them into body bags.

Tangipahoa Parish, like every other community in this nation, is not immune from this tragedy. Our families and our community feel the hurt of addicts. From March 2013 to November 2016, North Oaks Hospital reported 826 overdose cases. Every day, parish 9-1-1 operators dispatch first responders to reports of unresponsive patients and many of these calls result in death certificates listing cause of death as "multi-drug toxicity" because there were so many drugs in the person's system that the coroner could not precisely identify one single killer.

North Oaks Health System has taken proactive steps with the Centers for Disease Control's "Turn the Tide" campaign. A hospital committee of 17 medical professionals, led by trauma program chairman Dr. Marquinn Duke, meets monthly to discuss the crisis, attempts to reduce addiction through prevention and explores alternatives to opioids.

One step has resulted in the hospital establishing a policy to not refill lost, destroyed or stolen opioid prescriptions in the emergency department. Patients with chronic pain are encouraged to talk with their doctors about managing pain rather than seeking treatment in the emergency department.

Another step is the hospital requires its pharmacy, before filling prescriptions, to check with the state's monitoring program that tracks people's prescription histories.

Also, the opioid committee is studying alternative treatment options doctors can use for patients with chronic pain. The pendalum is shifting from the idea that pain can be alleviated to the idea that some pain can be expected.

Yet another very important goal is to expand the effort into the community. The committee is offering to provide speakers; call (985) 230-6647 or (225) 686-4885. They will speak to civic groups, of course, but other groups -- business and professional organizations, fire departments and law enforcement agencies, pharmacists, educators, social workers, clergy -- should hear them as well. The more we bring this crisis into the open, the better our community can fight it.

The hospital's commitment is significant, but North Oaks cannot "turn the tide" alone. So much more is needed.

Addictions hit home in Tangipahoa Parish. We have to accept the fact that we have lost many of our loved ones, but we don't have to keep losing more.

-- Lil Mirando, editor, The Daily Star