New opioid addiction treatment offers hope at Cook County hospitals
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Patience Roberts, at 37 years old, recently received her yoga instructor certification, moved in with her daughter and started serving up food for the paleo palate.
She’s also one year clean after a 23-year battle with opioid addiction, thanks to a revolutionary alternative to detox offered at Cook County hospitals that wiped out her drug cravings for good.
Addiction to opioids — prescription painkillers or synthetic ones such as heroin and fentanyl — has spiked into a nationwide epidemic in recent years, with nearly two-thirds of the United States’ more than 63,000 fatal overdoses in 2016 linked to opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts say up to 91 percent of people who do manage to stop using the deadly drugs are at risk of relapse, according to a study in the Irish Medical Journal. And because a user’s tolerance plummets during detox, the risk of a fatal overdose shoots up during a relapse.
That’s what happened to Roberts when she tried to break her addiction by stopping cold turkey.
“And it wasn’t realistic,” she said. “I’ve been using for 23 years of my life. I need that medication.”
That medication, Suboxone, saved Roberts life, she said, following an overdose that left her shaken.
“I got sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Roberts said.
Suboxone is one part of the new addiction treatment plan administered by the Cook County Health and Hospitals System known as medication-assisted treatment (MAT), using prescriptions paired with therapy and counseling.
“It is the most evidence-based treatment for opioid-use disorder,” said Dr. John Hayes, a CCHHS doctor who has walked Roberts through the program over the last year.
Suboxone is an under-the-tongue strip that satiates an addict’s cravings while inhibiting the drug’s euphoric effects. Unlike methadone, it doesn’t cause drowsiness or a similar opioid high.
It’s effective, Hayes said, because if patients try to use again, “One: they wasted their money. Two: they don’t die from an overdose. It’s a really big change from what we’re seeing with addiction medicine.”
Suboxone is used alongside regular counseling appointments with a doctor and a recovery coach — often another recovering user.
Hayes said the drug has minimal side effects and is covered by insurance. The one hurdle is doctors require extra training to prescribe it, he said, noting that some doctors are skeptical.
Roberts got hooked on painkillers at just 9 years old. At that age, she was just thinking about making her toothaches go away, not getting high. She recounted years of traumatic sexual abuse at home, bouncing from one foster home to another and eventually running away.
So she used.
“There was never a day in my life when I was happy about being alive,” Roberts said.
She got together with an older man and had three kids, later losing custody as a result of her addiction, she said. The turmoil continued in another abusive relationship in Texas, one that she escaped only to end up in jail on drug charges.
When she was released and returned to Illinois, Roberts reconnected with her sister — whom she discovered was also a heroin user.
So she kept using, enduring her sister’s drug problem while battling her own.
“We kept Narcan in our house,” Roberts said — referring to the overdose reversal serum. “My sister would overdose every day. It was her goal for the day.”
One day when both siblings had overdosed on fentanyl, their friends frantically administered Narcan to her sister and tried to take Roberts to the hospital. She woke up in the truck on the way there.
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“Something brought me back,” Roberts said. “God brought me back. And I feel like God brought me back because I have a mission in life and that’s to help other people.”
While she knew Suboxone could be a solution, she was skeptical at first. Roberts wanted to be clean — not medicated.
Only after a dozen counseling sessions with Hayes did Roberts accept she wasn’t yet ready to move forward without Suboxone’s help.
Now, she’s an advocate for MAT, saying, “If you really really want to get clean, you have to change your life . . . and Suboxone is the first step because it takes away the cravings.”
Without an opioid craving in more than a year, Roberts said she feels normal for the first time.
“I didn’t know what normal was,” Roberts said. “For a while I had to get to know me and who I was and know that this isn’t a side effect of the medication — this is just who I am.”
Who she is now is a budding yoga instructor, having just traveled to Arizona for her certification — her first flight on an airplane. She also works for the food delivery service Kitchfix — her boss, executive chef Joseph Lessard, called her a fantastic employee.
“A year ago . . . was the worst day of my life. Now I’m just like, it’s so different now,” Roberts said. “It feels like another lifetime ago.”
To learn more about the MAT program, call (844) 433-8793. The hospital system now offers MAT at 11 of its clinics.