THE TITLE CARD from 'A Hard Look At the Rhode Island Epidemic.'
On the morning of Thursday, April 17, Rhode Island State Police Superintendent, Colonel Steven O’Donnell, stepped to a podium at the Anchor Recovery Community Center in Pawtucket. Wearing the RISP’s distinctly elaborate uniform — complete with flat-brimmed hat and thick leather gloves that remained on his hands as he spoke — O’Donnell told the assembled crowd, “We lost 65 people last year on our highways. We’re on pace to lose 350 people from heroin overdose [this year].” A moment later, he added that this OD pace is 10 times last year’s rate of homicides in Rhode Island.
O’Donnell wasn’t the only one delivering grave news to the assembled reporters, public officials, and citizens. Minutes earlier, RI Department of Health director Dr. Michael Fine said, “My job is to report the numbers. And they’re tragic.” At least 85 Rhode Islanders, ages 20 to 62, have been lost to overdose since New Year’s Day, he said. The deaths occurred in 26 different cities and towns. Thirty-eight people died with drug paraphernalia at the scene — “so you can imagine. . . how sudden and intense it was.”
By now the fact that Rhode Island is in the midst of what Dr. Fine calls an “epidemic” of drug addiction and fatal overdose isn’t news. But the recent news coverage of that crisis is, well, newsworthy.
Three projects, in particular, stand out: Kristin Gourlay’s hour-long audio documentary, Killer Drugs: Tackling Opioid Addiction and Overdose, which aired in March on Rhode Island Public Radio; Rhode Island PBS’ 38-minute documentary, No Hero in Heroin: A Hard Look At the Rhode Island Epidemic, which premiered on April 3 on WSBE Channel 36 and re-aired throughout the month; and The Providence Journal’s ongoing, wide-ranging, multi-platform series, “Overdosed.”
Let’s start with the ProJo, an institution we’ve often criticized in these pages. Not this time. For a paper ravaged by layoffs and other ill effects of soulless, absentee ownership (the paper has finally been put up for sale by the Dallas-based A.H. Belo Corporation), the Journal has shown it can still deliver coverage that far exceeds any other Rhody news outlet on a particular subject. The reporters, columnists, photographers, videographers, web designers, and others behind “Overdosed” have done extraordinary work.
In this series, there are interactive, color-coded maps of the state, indicating how many accidental OD deaths have been reported in each city and town between 2010 and 2012. There are in-depth articles exploring the many gray areas involved when discussing drugs and addiction: how treating pain with opiate medications can sometimes, counter intuitively, lead to more pain via a condition called “hyperalgesia,” or how Rhode Island’s Good Samaritan law, designed to give 911 callers who report overdoses immunity from drug charges, has yet to be fully adopted or understood by local law enforcement. There are memorable video interviews with serial prescription forgers or first responders who describe administering the OD-reversing drug Narcan. Heck, even Mark Patinkin, whom we’ve previously blasted for his tone-deafness on drugs (he used the phrase “blow a lot of weed” in a recent column about marijuana), delivered a stirring 2300-word column conveying the anguish of a mother who receives news her daughter, a recovering addict, has passed away from an overdose.
Rhode Island PBS is equally deserving of praise. The producers of No Hero In Heroin do viewers the service of assembling an all-star team for an in-studio roundtable discussion of the crisis. (“There is no shame [in addiction],” James Gillen, director of Anchor Recovery Community Center, says at one point. “The only shame is. . . if another person dies [whom] maybe we could have reached out to”). But the show also takes aim at any lingering idea that addiction only afflicts certain segments of the state’s population. We are introduced to Abby, a pretty, young former cheerleader from Barrington who once was the secretary of her high school Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) chapter. She was also a “full-blown addict” by age 15, who OD’d three times and spent six stints in rehab before the guilt from missing her grandmother’s funeral pushed her to turn her life around.
And then there’s Kristin Gourlay’s Killer Drugs for RIPR, which is so crisply produced and sharply reported that it almost makes you say, “Wait a second, this was made in Rhode Island?” Gourlay visits the ER at Rhode Island Hospital to interview a doctor about the seesawing concerns — proper pain treatment vs. preventing addiction and abuse — he must consider when prescribing painkillers. She also rides along with a police officer in Quincy, Massachusetts (one of the first US towns to equip its force with Narcan) who describes the involuntary gasps, or “agonal breathing,” he encounters at the scene of an overdose. Along the way, she pauses, rewinds, and leads listeners through a history of opiates, from ancient pain treatments derived from poppy plants through Shakespearean references to “drowsy syrups” to the modern-day pharmaceutical goliaths that aggressively marketed drugs like OxyContin to family practitioners who had little expertise in treating addiction.
Now, to say that such a wealth of clear, confident, humane reporting about addiction in Rhode Island is a cause for celebration would be a misuse of words. The Boston Globe tactfully addressed a comparable situation when it tweeted, “We understand our good fortune arose from the misfortune of others,” upon news of winning a Pulitzer for coverage of last year’s Boston Marathon bombings. But Rhode Island’s abundance of high-quality storytelling on this topic is cause for appreciation.
After all, few subjects are more difficult to cover than pain, addiction, drug abuse, and overdose. Pain is impossible to test for and, thus, defies the kind of exact metrics — a blood pressure reading, a blood-alcohol level, a person’s weight — that reporters covering health are inclined to reach for. This is further complicated by the fact that opiate medications (a profoundly complicated and controversial subject themselves) exist within the confusing legal framework of the federal government’s Controlled Substances Act. An OxyContin pill might be illegal in one person’s pocket, but perfectly legal, alongside the proper prescription, in someone else’s.
Then there’s the subject of addiction, which can take weeks’ or months’ worth of interviews to understand before a reporter can distill those conversations into a few concise, clear sentences to present to readers who may approach the subject with a lifetime’s worth of deeply held beliefs. Add this to the fact that reporting on addiction and overdose often means running up against medical privacy laws that prohibit access to basic details — a name, a date, location — nonfiction stories are built on.
All of this is to say, once you finish this article, keep reading about the Ocean State’s current public health crisis. We suggest starting small — say, with one of the ProJo’s charts showing how opiate prescriptions in RI nearly quadrupled between 2003 and 2011, or with their glossary explaining the differences between “dependence,” “tolerance,” and “addiction.” Then keep going.
If this were any other kind of public health emergency, wouldn’t you want to know as much as possible?