When Arlene Rice of Louisville, Ky. speaks to people who don’t understand that addiction is a disease, she understands how they think. That’s because she was once one of those people.
Rice has been a registered nurse for three decades, many of those years spent as an open heart cardiovascular recovery nurse, also serving as an Advanced Cardiac & Basic Life Support Instructor. At Brown Mackie College-Louisville, she taught anatomy & physiology to nursing & ancillary students.
Kentucky has become Ground Zero for the national opiate abuse epidemic, with one of the country’s highest overdose rates. But Rice didn’t know much about the disease of addiction until her son, Gabriel, went into treatment for opiate addiction.
In 2010, Rice was participating in a family group as part of her son’s treatment at a local facility. “When it came time for me to speak, the counselor asked me, ‘What do you think?’ I said ‘I think he just needs to get a life.’ When I said that, he started crying, because I had shamed him.”
Rice’s son died of an overdose in April, 2013 at the age of 31, having used opiates for about three years. “I was a professor and nurse, but I didn’t know how to help my son,” Rice recalls. “I had to know what happened.”
Russ Read, executive director of Beacon House, a men’s sober living facility, arranged a meeting with Greg Jones, M.D., an addiction medicine specialist. Rice asked Jones to help her understand what happened to her son. “I picked his brain; I told him ‘I have to know how this happens, so I can explain it to other people.’”
Jones explained how opiates affect the brain, the reward center in the mid-brain, and how the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a key role in addiction. Since then, “I have come full circle in my beliefs and have become a strong advocate” for making naxolone available to prevent fatal overdoses, and providing other forms of medication-assisted treatment, Rice says.
Rice tells her story in a book she published in 2014, “Parent of An Adult Addict: Hope for the Broken Road” sharing what she has learned and offering education on the signs and symptoms a parent needs to know to spot suspected drug abuse by their child, resources for finding support, practical approaches in dealing with an addicted child, “and encouragement to know, ‘You are not alone on this road.’”
In 2015, Rice helped found the Kentucky Harm Reduction Coalition, along with co-founders Read and Donald Davis, who has worked in the field of HIV, Hepatitis and addiction-related harm reduction since 1997.
The coalition’s mission is to reduce substance addiction overdoses and deaths, the stigma associated with addiction, and to offer harm reduction solutions which include improving public health in Kentucky and Southern Indiana.
One of its key functions has been to help improve the availability of naloxone and provide training in its use to prevent fatal overdoses. The Coalition has been a driving force in pushing for Kentucky’s sweeping heroin treatment bill, and other measures, such as the online registry that allows patients to locate pharmacies that supply naloxone without a patient-specific prescription.
With mortality rates continuously climbing due to drug overdoses, the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy (ODCP) created the registry earlier this year.
When she is providing Narcan training to law enforcement personnel and other groups, Rice — who has two other adult children currently in recovery — shares her story. When she speaks to groups, Rice says she can “tell by body language” listeners who are resistant to the idea of providing naloxone and Narcan. “When that happens, I will tell my story more in depth.”
At treatment centers, Rice often speaks with parents with sons and daughters who are battling addiction, who may share the view of addiction as a moral weakness, rather than a brain disease, as she once did. “I share with them the disease concept and sometimes tell them that ‘Maybe you need to rethink that.'”
“We need to treat addiction the same way you treat someone coming into the ER with a mental health disorder, instead of just sending them back out. There is no other disease process where we send people back into the community without treating them.”
“We don’t want to devalue anybody’s life, I don’t care how many times they OD. If someone jumped in the river you would jump in and save them, even if they did it again and again.”
“Some people accuse us of enabling people. To that, we say, ‘We are enabling people; we are enabling them to breathe.’”