Let's be blunt: the Commonwealth of Virginia is facing an opiate epidemic. Especially in rural areas, where a combination of limited job opportunities and lack of comprehensive health care has resulted in a flood of the kinds of painkillers usually reserved for end-stage cancer patients. From what I've seen, both political parties have turned their backs on rural America for a long time, and this is one tragic consequence of that neglect.
Richmond isn't helping matters. Not too long ago, the Legislature passed a slew of laws to crack down on pill mills and hold practitioners accountable for their prescriptions. Sounds reasonable, right? But the result was a sharp increase in the number of heroin overdoses we saw in our emergency departments — a literally unprecedented wave of life-threatening episodes. When addicts had trouble getting their Vicodin prescriptions refilled, they turned to harder drugs.
As an emergency department nurse, I got a close look at the human consequences of those decisions in Richmond. My colleagues and I were the ones performing CPR and inserting breathing tubes after family members found their loved ones passed out and blue-faced. My colleagues and I had to endure the cursing, the death threats, even the physical attacks, from patients angry about not getting their fix. And we're the ones who had deal with the mental health fallout. While the folks in Richmond took credit for solving a problem, they were creating lots of new problems back home.
So what's the answer? We need a comprehensive solution — not a short-term band-aid that lets politicians play the hero while shifting the burden onto first responders. Above all, we need to blanket the hardest-hit areas with doctors, clinics, and treatment programs. Those kinds of solutions are tough and they will require real sacrifice. But the longer we wait, the more tragedies we'll have to endure.