With philanthropic support, Akron Children’s Hospital has created a new program to join other efforts in the community addressing the devastating toll of substance abuse disorders.
“With the second highest rate of overdose deaths in the country, Ohio is at the epicenter of the nation’s opioid epidemic,” said Akron Children’s President Grace Wakulchik. “Solving this problem will not be easy and will require a multi-disciplinary effort. As a leader in pediatric care, we felt the need to be more strategic in our services – with the ultimate goal of preventing today’s children and teens from becoming the next generation of adults struggling with lifelong addiction.”
In its first phase, Akron Children’s Addiction Services Program will focus on education, prevention, screening, care coordination, community outreach, and referral, with medically-assisted treatment and outpatient care added as the program grows.
“Substance abuse, including the opioid crisis that we have all been watching unfold, is a complex societal problem and, contrary to what some people may think, it is a pediatric problem,” said Dr. Sarah Friebert, who has been instrumental in creating the new 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, the founder and director of Akron Children’s Haslinger Family Pediatric Palliative Care Center. “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, by a $250,000 donation from FedEx Custom Critical. Other significant contributions have come from Marci Matthews, Harvey and Kim Nelson, Friends of Akron Children’s Hospital, Bob and Regina Cooper, and Don Sitts.
“The opioid crisis is having a major effect on our community, and we must address it with the highest sense of urgency,” said Virginia Addicott, president and CEO of FedEx Custom Critical. “We are proud to support a program that will help find solutions to this epidemic.”
The first major gift of $300,000 to create the program came from Brian Malone and Lea Heidman, who lost their daughter, Alyssa, 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 new program at Akron Children’s gives parents the resources they need, especially early on. Educational materials in the program will be branded “Alyssa Promise.”
“Ultimately, our goal is to prevent other parents from having to receive a call like we did,” said Brian.
For more information, call 330-543-3343.