MERIDEN — K.C. Conklin of Wallingford knows firsthand what it’s like to wake up in a car or a one-room freezing apartment, alone, scared and looking for drugs.
”I’ll be able to get it under control,” Conklin thought at the time. “I’ll be able to bounce back.’ Addiction can be a dark and lonely place.”
Conklin’s denial and despair led to a vicious cycle of recovery and relapse until he finally reached out to former addicts who helped through long term recovery. Conklin shared his experience getting hooked on pain killers. and eventually, heroin, with health experts, police, and other first responders on Wednesday.
Hartford Healthcare joined Rushford, Hunter’s Ambulance and the city of Meriden to announce a $2 million four-year federal grant to treat addiction through a community approach. The Meriden Opioid Referral for Recovery (MORR) program aims to bridge the gap between the delivery of narcan by first responders to follow-up assessment and treatment that can yield long-term recovery.
“When someone with an opioid use disorder arrives in our emergency department, they are approached by a peer recovery coach, someone who has been in their shoes and knows the struggles of addiction,” said Dr. Craig Allen, the clinical director of Rushford. “We know that peer-to-peer approach works but we need to make that connection.”
The grant will fund 400 more doses of narcan for first responders in addition to providing comprehensive training to all police officers on understanding mental health and addiction. The eight-hour class begins April 9. A second phase of the program offers crisis intervention training.
Police officers need to treat overdose and addiction as a medical problem, not a criminal one, said Police Chief Jeffry Cossette. Some officers may view the addict as a “junkie” and treat them differently than others in need of emergency medical services.
“We have to change the mindset,” Cossette said. “Once we change the mindset, then we can begin to change the culture.”
Meriden emergency response officials noticed an uptick in the amount of narcan administered in the past few years but wanted an opportunity to impact lives beyond the reversal of an overdose. The numbers of overdoses quadrupled from 2012 to 2016 and have gone up since, Allen said.
Both Cossette and Meriden Fire Chief Kenneth Morgan referred to the city’s opioid crisis Wednesday as an epidemic.
Through the new project, first responders will connect an individual with MORR staff embedded in the Rushford Crisis Team. The team will guide the individual along a recovery path and to a case manager. MORR also works with families of addicts.
Jessica Matyka, the director of community services at Rushford, discovered the grant and partnered with the city’s Department of Health and Human Services on developing a community-wide program.
“We know that treatment is effective and recovery is real, and the city of Meriden is committed to identifying a path that lets residents reclaim their lives and rejoin our community,” said Lea Crown, director of Health and Human Services for Meriden.
Hartford Healthcare was among the first medical networks to offer peer-to-peer recovery coaches in the emergency room to help addicts find treatment options following overdoses.
Today, Conklin is recording hip-hop music and has achieved some acclaim.
“I really believe this program is going to help save lives,” he said. “You have to meet people on their terms.”