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Health Officials Grapple For An Accurate Picture Of Opioid Drug Abuse In Wyoming

Pennie Hunt
A photo of JT and his mom, Pennie Hunt, only a couple months before his death.

This is the first in a series about prescription opioid drug addiction in Wyoming.

Cheyenne resident Pennie Hunt knew her youngest son JT wasn’t like other kids. As lovable and creative as he was, she said, “He grew up kind of as the daredevil and I always worried about him.”

JT struggled with anxiety.  By the time he was 14, he was addicted to his prescription medication. At 15, he went to his first stint in an out-of-state rehab center.

“He got out of rehab and was doing better and had a wisdom tooth pulled and was given pain meds,” she said, shaking her head at the memory. Photos of JT’s smiling face sit on the desk around her. “And then the cycle was started all over again.”

When JT went back to get more teeth removed, Hunt said, “I asked the dentist if I could talk to him in his office. And I said, my son is an addict, you cannot give him addictive medicine. And he said to me, I signed an oath that I cannot let my patients leave in pain. And I said, then give him Tylenol.”

Hunt said she left frustrated that the dentist didn’t see the problem of prescribing to an addict.

Still, her son found ways to get pain pills. Again, Hunt started making calls to rehab centers. She was no novice. She’d spent her entire career working in the health care system but that didn’t open doors.

“I kept being told over and over again, three months, six months. We can’t get him in. If you know anything about addiction, if you have someone who’s willing to get help right now, things need to move right now,” said Hunt.

These waitlists are no surprise since Wyoming has only eight residential rehab centers for adults, and some of those are outpatient only. Finally, she found a bed for her son in South Dakota. When he got out this time, she thought he might be getting better.

Then, he didn’t call for three days.

When the police broke into his apartment, JT lay dead on his couch, overdosed on opioid prescription meds at 23 years old.

That was ten years ago but Hunt said her experience with uneducated medical providers and a lack of rehab space still needs to be addressed in Wyoming.

Research scientist Rodney Wambeam at the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center is working on a study of opioid addiction in the state. He said, yes, Wyoming is seeing a rise in opioid addiction and overdoses.

“We do have a problem,” Wambeam said. “I think it’s just not the crisis that you’re seeing in other parts of the country.”

Back in 2004, only 19 people overdosed on opioids in Wyoming. In 2014, ten years later, it had ballooned to 96.

But, Wambeam said, other coal mining states have it much worse. While Wyoming saw eight opioid overdoses per 100,000 people, West Virginia (the state with the highest rates of overdose) saw 52 deaths to opioids per 100,000.

“Compared to, say, rural Appalachia where the people lose their jobs, the coal mines shut down and they stay, and they have a culture of despair.”

Here in Wyoming, when energy workers lost their jobs they left the state, so it’s hard to know if they developed addictions or not. But now that Wyoming is monitoring opioid use, Wambeam said more medical providers are scaling back how much they prescribe. The goal is to get proactive before things get worse.

“I think we’re doing the right things, whether it’s educating pharmacists and doctors, whether it’s having prescription take-back events, whether it’s having Naloxone in the hands of first responders, we’re ahead of the curve,” Wambeam said. “I don’t think that we’re waiting for the storm to hit. We’re lucky that way.”

A Wyoming health expert agrees that Wyoming’s opioid problem isn’t at crisis levels. Erica Mathews is the Wyoming Health Department’s substance abuse prevention manager. She said when it saw other states buckling under high rates of overdosing, her office started fighting the problem early. Now, every county has a prevention coalition and every first responder has access to Naloxone, a medication to stop an overdose in its tracks. Last year, lawmakers relaxed Naloxone rules further, and even pharmacists can distribute it.

But in a rural state, the challenge is just getting people to those services.

“You’ve talked about the frontier nature [of Wyoming] and that is one of our biggest challenges,” Mathews said. “And the lack of supports that we do have in the state. But we do have other supports in other ways. We are such close-knit communities that we are able to make grand change in those communities in a much shorter period of time.”

Still, Mathews admits Wyoming does need to collect more accurate data from coroners and hospitals.

“[We’re] really trying to drill down in, to like the hospital discharge data, instead of just having it say prescription overdose: what was the prescription? Can we figure that out? So there are barriers, but we’re working to tear those down and be able to get the data needed.”

And some of that data includes the cause of death. For years, Pennie Hunt kept her son’s true cause of death a secret. The autopsy called it bronchopneumonia. She said lots of people do the same, and that’s why Wyoming’s data on opioid deaths may be inaccurate.

“It’s coming. And it’s here,” said Hunt, “and Wyoming is really good at keeping our family things to ourselves and not talking about it and so it’s here. It’s not being talked about.”

In hopes of removing that stigma, Hunt’s oldest son started an interactive map called “Celebrating Lost Loved Ones,”where families can post photos and share stories.

JT’s young, handsome face is just one of hundreds posted there.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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