In innovative ‘opera,’ a new weapon in the opioid war

Powerful message: Every opioid addict has a story to tell, according to Northwell Health VP Gina Czark.
By GINA CZARK //

How bad is our opioid epidemic?

Consider these stats: In 1993, America’s peak year of gun violence, we lost approximately 40,000 people to firearms. The AIDS crisis claimed about 45,000 lives in 1995, the grimmest year on record, while 1972 was the worst year ever for car crash fatalities, claiming the lives of about 50,000 Americans.

Some 70,237 people died in 2017 from drug overdoses in America, making this current crisis among the most dire public health challenges we’ve ever faced.

So, how do we face it?

It’s one of the most pressing questions we’ve had to address at Northwell Health, the largest healthcare system in New York State, where opioid-overdose deaths doubled between 2010 and 2015 alone. But side-by-side with offering excellent care and advanced research, we’ve found an additional powerful tool to help our patients, their families and the community at large: telling stories.

Recently, we’ve commissioned David Everett, a veteran journalist, to report and write what he titled “an opera in four acts” about the crisis. It begins with Jason Mark King, a 31-year-old New Yorker, being discovered, naked and dead, on the floor of his apartment by his former fiancée.

King’s story is meaningful precisely because it addresses the blind spots so many of us still have when thinking about drug addiction. Society assumes the first taste of the illicit substance is a choice; often it isn’t.

Gina Czark: Breaking the stigma of opioid addiction.

Addiction is often viewed as a character flaw, not a medical condition, with solutions long on punitive measures and short on empathy. In so doing, we are failing to help tens of thousands of men and women like King, which is precisely why telling these stories is so important.

In his “opera,” Everett did just that. He interviewed physicians and researchers, but also, and maybe more importantly, he spoke to survivors. He sat down with people like Renee Rimmer, King’s fiancée. He interviewed bereaved parents and heartbroken spouses. He gave readers a peek at perspectives not often seen or heard – those myriad Americans impacted by this terrible epidemic.

It’s not only the kind thing to do, but the medically meaningful thing as well.

Here’s why: Often, the access to life-saving treatment is curtailed for no other reason than stigma, the deadly shame that permeates every aspect of this crisis. Substance-dependent patients fail to seek help because they’re afraid of seeming weak or irresponsible. Family members or loved ones ignore obvious signs.

Even doctors and caregivers have much to learn about how to ensure that each patient they see is diagnosed empathically and efficiently. To do that, we must overcome the stigma too often associated with substance abuse, and collectively learn to see the people who suffer – not as flawed addicts, but as human beings who struggle against a curable condition.

There are few better ways to achieve that goal than authentic storytelling. By giving patients and their families the spotlight they are so often denied, and by encouraging them to share their own harrowing experiences, we hope to take the first step toward a much-needed national conversation, one that may very well save lives.

It’s my hope that somewhere, an anxious mother or a concerned husband might read these accounts and realize that his or her loved one is in danger. A story may not provide the same immediate and definite impact of a detoxification or a treatment program, but it can be instrumental in taking the crucial first step to healing and recovery.

This op-ed originally appeared in MediaPost’s Marketing Insider. Reprinted with permission. Gina Czark is vice president of content management at Northwell Health. She is scheduled to be part of a healthcare panel speaking at a Social Media Association/Northwell Health breakfast networking event March 7 in New Hyde Park.