Amber Miller was taking a couple dozen hydrocodone pills a day and started having autoimmune problems when she learned of a drug that could help her kick her destructive addiction.
“I had so many I could take, and I was trying to not get sick,” Miller, a 42-year-old mother of two, said Friday. “When I was calling around trying to get some people to sell them to me, they said, ‘well, have you tried suboxone?’ ”
The medical treatment led her to Ideal Option, a substance-abuse treatment center that now operates in 10 states, including four offices in the Spokane area. Miller broke down in tears Friday as she shared her story with Mayor Nadine Woodward, who toured the facility as Spokane continues to face a public health crisis brought on by illicit opioids, particularly fentanyl, that have skyrocketed in availability on the streets.
Ideal Option screens patients upon entry into their program, which includes the office on East Francis Avenue where Miller receives her treatment once every three weeks. The anonymous data allows the office not only to identify the treatment needs of patients, but also what types of drugs are available and being used in the community, said Tim Kilgallon, chief executive officer of Ideal Option.
“This is the kind of data caregivers like us should be providing,” he said.
The company’s latest report on its Washington clinics indicates a spike in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be up to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. While about 20% of new patients tested positive for the drug when they entered treatment at the beginning of 2020, by the end of 2021 that number was closer to 50% and could have been higher because of delays in testing and fentanyl substitutes available on the street but for which there is no test available yet, Kilgallon said.
Most of Ideal Option’s patients enter treatment taking more than one substance, including alcohol, and may be unaware they’ve become addicted to fentanyl because it’s being laced into pills with other substances, Kilgallon said.
Miller said her addiction began with methamphetamine from ages 14 to 18 and alcohol, which caused her to lose her job. She was the victim of a domestic violence incident that caused a brain hemorrhage. That left her with pain the powerful painkillers were intended to deaden, but instead she became addicted.
“Once I got out of the hospital, I didn’t have my house. I was living in my friend’s room, and I didn’t have my kids,” Miller said, through tears.
Her treatment at Ideal Option included the suboxone, a brand name for a drug called buprenorphine that acts like an opioid in the brain without the same risk of overdose or dependency.
“Whatever triggers you to use, it’s not there anymore, it takes that away,” Miller said. “That’s what so important about this medication.”
Patients often suffer relapses when they’re trying to get off opioids. The screening that Ideal Option performs alerts care providers to potential relapses and allows for a conversation between counselors and patients, said Stephanie Bowdish, a nurse practitioner with Ideal Option.
“The great thing about our lab is that we have objective data to confirm what they have going on, but also pick up on things they may not want to reveal to us,” Bowdish said. The results allow caregivers to work with patients on their specific needs, she said.
Woodward was told by other caregivers at Ideal Option that some jails in Washington state had begun administering suboxone to inmates who are processed in an attempt to reduce withdrawal symptoms. The mayor said she’d be interested in seeing such a program permanently in use in Spokane County.
“We need to start that conversation up again,” Woodward said.
Ideal Option is also reaching out to people staying at homeless shelters around Spokane. Bud Nokes, a certified peer counselor at the program who came to Spokane after an overdoes in Seattle and found clean housing and a job, said he’s able to speak to addicts with a level of familiarity that isn’t possible in other situations.
“You know, we walk the walk with you. We’ve been there, done that,” Nokes said.
Miller said she’d be interested in also taking on that role. She’s been six years sober from opiates, five years from alcohol, and recently won a scholarship to go back to school and study psychology.
“I’m very grateful for the program,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.”
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