On August 31, the world pauses to remember all those who have been impacted by substance use disorders. International Overdose Awareness Day, which works to raise awareness of overdoses and reduce the stigma of drug-related deaths, is a reminder that addiction impacts children as well as adults.
“As we remember our loved ones who have passed before their time, we know more work needs to be done,” said William Goldman, DO, medical director of the Addiction Services Program at Akron Children’s Hospital. “The disease of addiction is still active in our communities, and I am proud of the work that Akron Children’s is doing to bring awareness and treatment to our youth. This is an opportunity to change the lives of our children who are facing substance use disorders. I am thankful for the support we receive from our community, our institution and our donors that supports the programming that Akron Children’s provides.”
The Addiction Services Program, which is part of the Lois and John Orr Family Behavioral Health Center, recently announced plans to expand.
The program now includes evidenced-based outpatient treatment services for children and youth with substance use disorders up to age 18. This includes medication-assisted treatment for withdrawal management and ongoing maintenance along with individual and family counseling.
These services compliment the ongoing education, prevention, screening, care coordination, community outreach and referral.
“Substance abuse is a complex societal problem and, contrary to what some people may think, it is a pediatric problem,” said Sarah Friebert, MD, founder and director of Akron Children’s Haslinger Family Pediatric Palliative Care Center and the Sarah Elizabeth Friebert, MD Leadership Chair in Pediatric Palliative Care, who was instrumental in creating the Addiction Services Program.
Risky behavior in teens, such as drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, can have long-term consequences as lower drug initiation age is strongly correlated with later drug and alcohol abuse and dependence.
And while heroin is not commonly used among high school students, the rate of use increases significantly among those 18-25 years old.
“People don’t wake up on the morning of their 18th birthday and put a needle in their arm,” said Dr. Friebert. “Something has been happening all along, and youth is the time when we have an opportunity to educate and prevent what can become a very disabling, lifelong process.”
Michelle Bestic, PharmD, a clinical pharmacologist and member of the addiction services team, said a major goal for the program is to help remove the stigma surrounding addiction.
“Addiction thrives in silence; it flourishes in the dark,” she said.
The program is funded in part with support from FedEx Custom Critical, Marci Matthews, Harvey and Kim Nelson, Friends of Akron Children’s Hospital, Bob and Regina Cooper and Don Sitts.
The first major gift of $300,000 was announced in 2018 and came from Brian Malone and Lea Heidman, who lost their daughter, Alyssa Apostolakis, to a drug overdose.
Alyssa’s story is all too familiar in the nation’s opioid epidemic. As a teen growing up in Medina, she was prescribed opioids after several surgeries, and having a history of depression only increased her risk. Despite the love and support of her family and access to top-notch medical care, she could not overcome her addiction and eventually succumbed to it in 2015 at age 21.
Lea describes Alyssa as artistic, musical, fun and full of compassion for others. But her struggle was real. Lea and Brian were hopeful after Alyssa went to an out-of-state residential treatment program during high school, and the outlook was bright when she went to college in North Carolina.
But, during her freshman year of college, she met a boy who introduced her to heroin.
“She was very stealth at hiding her addiction,” said Lea. “We were going to see her in 5 days – go on a family vacation – when we received the call from the sheriff’s office.”
Lea and Brian believe they are carrying on Alyssa’s legacy in working with Akron Children’s to create this program.
“We are doing this to fulfill Alyssa’s dream,” said Lea. “Her goal in college was to help other people struggling with addiction.”
Added Brian, “We might not ever know who we are helping, but it doesn’t matter.”
Brian and Lea hope the program at Akron Children’s gives parents the resources they need, especially early on. Educational materials in the program will be branded “Alyssa’s Promise.”
“Ultimately, our goal is to prevent other parents from having to receive a call like we did,” said Brian.
For more information, call 330-543-5015.
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