How our opioid crisis is affecting our local healthcare workers

Healthcare workers are on the front lines of our battle with opioids.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - They're on the front lines of the battle, fighting against our nation's opioid crisis.

Healthcare workers in the Tennessee Valley say this drug epidemic is hurting us all, and they're doing all they can to save lives, regardless of the toll it takes on theirs.

Healthcare workers are swamped with patients, pills and paperwork because of that epidemic, which has already claimed more lives than the Vietnam War.

"Oh it's horrible," said Emergency Room Doctor, Sherrie Squyres. "It's a crying shame. A lot of these deaths are people that are young people who could have had potentially long, productive, happy lives. They're being stolen from us by this awful epidemic."

We are at war with opioid abuse.

The killer isn't immune to any gender, age, race or socioeconomic status.

"You can't stereotype who you think is an addict," said Laura Burdeshaw, a registered nurse and intake coordinator at Decatur Morgan Hospital. "It touches too many people now."

However, opiate addiction isn't just hurting patients; it's also hurting our healthcare workers.

"We are already very full with general medical patients, so when we try to add on top of that, they need a lot of care when they're here," said Burdeshaw.

"These patients are fairly high maintenance, whether they're in here having a withdrawal, or having an acute overdose, or in cardiac arrest," said Dr. Squyres.

"It puts a rippling effect on their care, and all tax payers," said Dixie Richter, a registered nurse and director of Another Chance at Decatur Morgan Hospital.

Dr. Squyres says she has seen far too few success stories in the E.R.

"Many of them end up in jail because jail is the last resource," said Dr. Squyres. "Jail truly provides most of the resource, sadly."

Healthcare workers say there just aren't enough resources.

Workers at Decatur Morgan Hospital even had to launch an entirely new program to combat this epidemic.

Personnel now devote their entire work schedules to saving opiate-addicted patients.

Chiropractor, Dr. Seth Underwood says he's also seen a drastic uptick in opioid-related patients.

"We're kind of at the forefront, chiropractic," said Dr. Underwood, the chiropractic doctor at HealthSource of Harvest. "We get to the root of the cause, we heal from a natural, holistic perspective. We try to decrease that pain not only for the short-term but for the long term."

Dr. Underwood says preventive care is crucial. it can save money, time and ultimately lives.

"It may be cheaper to utilize some sort of medication, but at the same time, do you know the side effects and the risk of those medications?"

Another solution is prescribing conservatively.

"I think that's where we have failed," said Richter. "Patients think that they're not going to have any pain. That's not true. It's going to hurt. You've had surgery. We, as healthcare will have to back off on prescribing."

"We don't give them to people who come in and say 'I've lost my prescription and I have chronic pain,'" said Dr. Squyres. "We have to have very specific medications and we prescribe a limited number."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, southern states have the highest painkiller prescription rates. This highlights the urgent need to change prescription practices in Alabama.

"It's one of the highest states rate of opioid pain medication being prescribed per person, per year, which is an alarming rate and something we need to reel back in and help fight back against," said Dr. Underwood.

Healthcare workers say another solution for the Tennessee Valley is more rehab programs, tailored to fit the needs of each patient.

"It's not a one stop shop or one kind fits every body," said Dr. Squyres. "There are many types."

Burdeshaw says our healthcare system also needs to emphasize detoxification.

"They may have insurance, but they don't have substance abuse or mental health coverage, so it leaves them up as if they don't have insurance," said Burdeshaw.

Workers say our war against opioid overdose is far from over, and they have a lot of work ahead of them.

"It's going to be a hard fought battle from the top all the way down," said Richter.

But there is, of course, hope.

"There is hope that you can be the person that you used to be," said Burdeshaw. "There is hope beyond addiction. There are people out there that are willing and want to help."

Dr. Squyres wants everyone to watch a documentary titled 'Chasing the Dragon' on Google. It shows the harsh reality opiate-addicted people face and the powerful, life-changing effect opioid abuse can have on families.

The FBI Birmingham Citizens Academy Alumni Association, the Birmingham Division of the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will present it free of charge to the public on Thursday, March 1 at Bob Jones High School. To learn more, click here.

Dr. Underwood is a big proponent of awareness and prevention. To learn more about his services in Harvest, click here.

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