Series on opioid epidemic highlights personal stories, medical information

As a teen, Allie Rambo went from being a 4.0 student who loved playing basketball and softball to an opioid addict who once tried to get heroin delivered to the homeless shelter where she was staying. The 29-year-old Logan County, W.Va., native recounted her personal story of addiction and recovery during a session of the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine’s (WVSOM) educational series addressing the opioid epidemic.

Rambo lost several close friends to opioid use. One low point came when, upon learning that yet another friend had fatally overdosed, her first inclination was to help herself to the drugs he left behind.

“All I could think was, ‘I need to get to the room to see if he left any pills, because I’m in pain right now emotionally and physically, and I need something to numb this,’” she shared with the audience at WVSOM’s Conference Center.

Rambo was one of about a dozen speakers who participated in a set of presentations sponsored by WVSOM’s Center for Rural and Community Health (CRCH) and Neuro-Psych Club. It was the school’s second year offering a series on the topic of opioids, following 2019’s successful series. They were made possible through a State Opioid Response grant for professional development provided by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities.

​Haylee Heinsberg, M.Ed., WVSOM’s CRCH director of education, said the opioid epidemic has brought to West Virginia increased overdose death rates, infectious diseases related to intravenous drug use, foster care demands, and legal and financial hardships. The presentations were intended to bring new perspectives and information on the epidemic to WVSOM students, who received a 2020 Opioid Educational Series certificate if they attended all five sessions. In all, 119 students received certificates.

“This crisis affects us all,” Heinsberg said. “The educational series aimed to prepare the next generation of physicians to address the opioid epidemic with compassion, evidence-based strategies and collaboration. Our goal was to increase knowledge and reduce stigma to promote medical students’ understanding of the epidemic and improve the way students on rotations and physicians in practice communicate, connect and care for those who are struggling with opioid use disorder.”

The weekly series was offered from Jan. 6 to Feb. 3. The introductory session featured Heinsberg; WVSOM Neuro-Psych Club advisor Julianna Quick, M.A., Ed.S., LPC; and leaders of the Neuro-Psych Club. The second session, “Faces of Recovery and Personal Perspectives,” featured presentations by Allie Rambo, Regina Rambo and Steven Little, all former opioid users who successfully recovered, and photojournalist Mark Trent, who has documented the lives of West Virginians caught up in the epidemic.

The third session, “First Responders, Faith-Based Interventions, Judicial/Legal Perspectives,” featured Jan Rader, fire chief of Huntington, W.Va., and Necia Freeman of Brown Bag Ministries, both documented in the Academy Award-nominated 2017 Netflix documentary Heroin(e), as well as William Thompson, a drug court judge in Boone and Lincoln counties. The presenters described their compassionate work with addicts and urged aspiring physicians to work to reduce the stigma associated with opioid use disorder.

The fourth session, “Non-Opioid Pharmacological Treatment and Other Tools,” featured Rob Londeree, R.Ph., a local pharmacist who spoke about the use of compounding as a non-opioid alternative for topical pain treatment; and Deborah Schmidt, D.O., ACOFP, a WVSOM associate professor and physician acupuncturist who has been involved in bringing National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) protocol training to the school. During the session, auricular acupuncture, a treatment in which small needles are placed into specific areas on the ear to help reduce cravings for drugs and minimize withdrawal symptoms, was demonstrated on about 45 students. The treatment has also been found to improve sleep, decrease anxiety and ease symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, among other health benefits.

The final session, “Health Care Provider Management and Treatment,” featured addiction medicine and psychiatry specialist James Berry, D.O., who works with a team that is studying a surgical treatment for addiction known as deep brain stimulation. Berry spoke about the history of opiates and explained that the current epidemic is the second one the U.S. has experienced, after a crisis that began in the late 1800s following the introduction of synthetic opioids such as heroin. Berry also pointed out similarities between the physician-created circumstances that led to the opioid epidemic and current circumstances surrounding the use of cannabis to treat medical issues.

​Dawid Gerlach, president of the WVSOM Neuro-Psych Club, said the organization was proud to be involved in bringing the educational series to students — particularly those who may one day practice in regions hit hardest by the epidemic.

“I liked that it gave us plenty of viewpoints, ranging from people in recovery to people who work in health care,” Gerlach said. “For future physicians, it’s important to have that exposure, especially before we go into our third- and fourth-year rotations. It’s something we need to have more awareness of, given that opioid abuse is so prevalent in the Appalachian area and throughout West Virginia.”

James W. Nemitz, Ph.D., WVSOM’s president, said he was pleased by the high turnout for the series.

“This was an excellent co-curricular opportunity for WVSOM students, and it was educational for our employees as well,” Nemitz said. “This series provides unique perspectives to our medical students that are typically not found in the standard medical school curriculum.”

Now celebrating five years of sobriety thanks to treatment facilities and the support of those close to her, former opiate user Allie Rambo is helping people understand the epidemic by sharing her experiences.

“I once felt empty. Today, I feel full. I feel accomplished in being able to share who I am. I’ve submerged myself into my sobriety, my family and the strong people around me, and every day I try to be better than I was yesterday,” she said.

Date Added: 
Wednesday, February 19, 2020