Cuyahoga County (WJW) – The struggles of drug and alcohol abuse have not stopped during the coronavirus pandemic. Ohio recorded some of the highest numbers of overdose deaths in the country during the opioid epidemic, which is still an ongoing issue for families as well as first responders, hospitals, and medical examiners.
In 2017, Cuyahoga and Summit Counties sued some of the nation’s largest drug makers and distributors claiming they had a role in the drug crisis and the deaths of thousands of people.
Today, part of the hundreds of millions of dollars won in settlements goes to work, placing more former addicts in local emergency rooms to reach out to people in their moments of need.
“I’m like balling my eyes out, I’m like what did I do? And she just listened and took it all in,” says Michael Harper, 33. Harper was brought into the emergency room at MetroHealth in Cleveland for an overdose back in 2019.
In the moments after his overdose, when he was already detoxing, he met 26-year-old Avril Willoughby. Willoughby works as a ThriveED Peer Supporter. As a recovered addict she is stationed in the emergency room to offer recovery and detox options to overdose victims.
When FOX8 interviewed the two recovering addicts in February they had only known each other for 63 days, the amount of time Harper had been sober, but they talked as if they had been friends for years. Today he is nearly 3 months beyond that 63-day mark and living in recovery. “It’s exhilarating and I’m so thankful,” Harper said.
ThriveED is an innovative way to tackle the drug abuse and overdose problem in the greater Cleveland area. Peer supporters like Willoughby are in the emergency rooms of MetroHealth and St. Vincent Charity Medical Center 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year.
“That person is there to help them throughout the entire process right from detox all the way through to residential treatment,” explains Scott Osiecki, CEO of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board.
Since November of 2017, when ThriveED began at the two emergency rooms, it has taken 2,653 people from overdoses to detox and recovery programs. “I’m able to show them and prove to them that this is something that’s tangible that we are going to do today,” Willoughy said.
The ADAMHS Board helps fund recovery efforts throughout Cuyahoga County, including ThriveED. The board is also in charge of allocating some of the millions in opioid settlement money to local programs. Starting May 15th $3 million in funding from those settlements will fund ThriveED to expand its impact and employ peer supporters at six University Hospitals Emergency Departments.
Launching the program even during the global pandemic was a priority. At this time new peer supporters are working by virtual video means but will be physically present in the hospitals as soon as it is safe. While suspected overdoses into emergency rooms have remained steady during the coronavirus crisis there is concern alcohol and drug abuse could increase.
“Once people take care of their immediate needs and then they kind of realize what’s happening to them they could go back to using more drugs,” explained Osiecki.
Harper says he knows the program has the ability to save lives and is excited to hear it is expanding its reach. He began his drug use with coworkers and explains it spiraled out of control until he was using fentanyl, an often deadly synthetic opioid.
“It took me to lose everything, to get kicked out of my house, lose the woman that I love, to lose my business, my reputation, my family, it was only then that I realized that all is lost, what am I doing?” He came to that realization in the emergency room and Willoughby was there to relate.
She began experimenting with drugs and alcohol at 14 and went from a bright and promising young teen to addicted, hopeless, and depressed. “I couldn’t see a future I just lived hour by hour as my opiates were available, waiting for someone to call and say that they’ve got something for me to buy,” Willoughby remembered.
She is now several years into recovery with a career at Thrive helping others get and stay sober. She’s also repaired broken relationships with friends and family and describes her life as wonderful.
“When gems like Michael come along and they actually get this they get on fire for recovery that’s what makes this career worth it,” she said.
Willoughby and her coworkers at MetroHealth and St. Vincent were designated essential during the coronavirus pandemic and have continued to work in the emergency rooms. She continues to offer a lifeline to a new life just as she did for Michael Harper.
“I never would have thought from where I was I would get to this point to love myself to appreciate who I am as a person, it’s crazy,” Harper said.
Thrive Peer Supporters are also available by phone to talk about detox and recovery options. Anyone looking to reach out can call 216-220-8774 or click here.