A Vermont mom lost her son to opioids. She told the makers of Oxycontin his story.
More than a half million people in the U.S. have died from opioid overdoses since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the drugs at the center of the opioid crisis is Oxycontin, a product of Purdue Pharma.
People whose lives have been affected forever by Oxycontin had the chance to directly address three members of the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma, for the first time last month. More than two dozen addiction survivors and family members of people who passed away from opioid overdoses shared their stories during a landmark bankruptcy hearing.
Among them was Dr. Kimberly Blake, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and the mother of two. Her older son, Sean, passed away from an opioid overdose in 2017. Dr. Blake spoke to Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak about her son and her advocacy work.
A transcript of their conversation follows, edited and condensed for clarity:
Kimberly Blake: Sean was our first child. He was born just a few months before I moved to Vermont to do my residency — my husband, our son and I packed up when he was three months old and moved here. When he was a junior in high school, he was captain of the Alpine Ski Team. He was a senior leader at South Burlington High School. He went to Champlain College after graduating from high school, and that's when things really kind of blew up. It wasn't until later that we realized that he had been using Oxycontin.
He went to a treatment program, found sobriety, and enlisted in the Navy. He was selected to be on the submarine corps because he was so bright. Unfortunately, one weekend I went down to visit him — it was springtime, like it is now. I could tell, as a physician, that something was was really wrong. He seemed to be in opiate withdrawal.
Indeed, a week later, we got a call that he'd had a suicide attempt. It turned out that his substance use had become apparent to his commanding officers and he was going to be discharged. And we entered this cycle of relapse, recovery, treatments.
He ended up in Vermont jail for a year, for some minor misdemeanor charges. [When he got out,] he came home, he picked up his bicycle and his tent, and he went to live on the beach in Burlington. Within a few weeks, he got had gotten a job. He always worked. I was taking him to work one day, and he started to cry. And I was like, what's the matter? And he said, mom, it's just so hard. Sometimes it's just so hard.
I said, you know, we can just keep going. We'll just drive down to the Brattleboro Retreat. And he was like, no, I want to go do my job. I want to show up for work. He was a chef and he didn't want to let his employer down. And that was the last time I saw him.
He called us the day before he died. We made plans to meet for dinner. He was at some friend's house on Green Street in Burlington. He went to use a substance in the bathroom. By the time they found him it had been about 15, 20 minutes, and it was too late.
It was just such a preventable death — if there had been Narcan readily available, or if he'd been using at an overdose prevention site. Any of those things could have saved his life.
Mikaela Lefrak: Are those the types of prevention strategies that you advocate for today?
Blake: Absolutely. I have Narcan with me at all times. Narcan can reverse an overdose. Fentanyl test strips are another harm reduction service. And then finally, overdose prevention sites are places where people can use [illegal substances], and if they do overdose, it's in a medically supervised place where they can be revived.
Lefrak: You mentioned that you carry Narcan with you, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Do you still carry it with you to this day?
Blake: Absolutely. Yes. I reversed an overdose when I worked at Safe Recovery. It's something that everyone should have on hand.
Lefrak: Over the last five years, Dr. Blake, you've done so much work to support other people who are struggling with addiction. Last month, you were one of about two dozen people to address members of the Sackler family as part of their bankruptcy hearing. What motivated you to be part of this hearing?
Blake: I work with a lot of parents through an organization called Team Sharing, which is a group of parents who've lost kids to substance use disorder. We have a Vermont chapter, and I know that every single parent that I interact with would have loved to have had the opportunity to address the Sacklers.
The bankruptcy attorney cold-called me on a Saturday afternoon and said, "What would you say?" I basically had to audition. The Sacklers, they have a lot of culpability. I was very, very grateful to be able to have my five minutes.
Lefrak: You told the Sacklers that you were hospitalized with depression in 2020. Mother's Day was approaching, and you said it was difficult to imagine facing another one without Sean. What shape does your grief takes today? How you hold Sean with you today?
Blake: Yeah, well, it's interesting. I experienced a tremendous amount of stigma around the loss of somebody from substance use. I had a co-worker — who is not somebody I work with anymore — say that she did not think we should tell anybody what Sean died from. So for two years, I was doing this dance. People would ask me how Sean was, because I'd always talked about my kids, and I would have to make something up. That stigma really made it hard to grieve.
I needed to take care of myself. I needed to accept that it was okay to take an SSRI [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a category of drugs often used as antidepressants]. I needed to really increase my own self-care. I have a younger son who is an amazing human, and I have a husband and family that I needed to be healthy for. I know that Sean would really want me to be healthy.
Lefrak: How old is your other son?
Blake: He's turning 27, which is the same year that Sean passed away. They're just night and day different. He's an accountant. He lives in New York City. He's just an amazing kid.
Lefrak: I'm curious about how Sean's death might have affected how you practice medicine. Knowing what you know so personally about the effects of this medication, how does that change either how you do your work and prescribe painkillers, or how you talk to your your colleagues about it?
Blake: I'm really cautious about prescribing. I do do some surgeries that require some pain medicine afterwards, like hysterectomies. But I think it's an important discussion to have with patients. My husband had a ankle injury, and he received some 200 pain pills. He took one. Vermont has quite a history of over-prescribing, and I think we need to be cautious as physicians. Do no harm.
Lefrak: As part of this Purdue Pharma bankruptcy settlement, the company and the Sacklers could pay as much as $6 billion out to different states. Vermont would receive some of those funds. If it were up to you, what would Vermont's portion be spent on?
Blake: If there's one thing that could be really helpful, it'd be wraparound services for people leaving the criminal justice system. To be in jail for some misdemeanor charges that are nonviolent makes no sense at all. That money would be so much better spent on wraparound services for people who are struggling, especially for issues around mental health and substance use.
Broadcast on Tuesday, April 26, 2022, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.