When Sergeant Stephen Mandile returned from Iraq in 2005 with multiple injuries, he was given morphine to treat the pain. Over the next ten years, the Uxbridge native said he was prescribed 57 different medications, 10 of which were opioids. Mandile soon became dependent on the drugs and he began to hoard pills and patches. He refused to leave the house without his medicine. He went through daily withdrawals. In one of his darkest moments, he searched Google Maps for remote bodies of water where he could end his life.
“It brings you to a very lonely place,” he said. “I was so ashamed of what I was and how I was living. I wanted to die.”
Mandile, who credits his recovery to his wife, doctor and medical marijuana, now leads a nonprofit called We Are Allies. Conceived of during the opioid hackathon last September, We Are Allies seeks to save lives and combat stigma.
It’s no small task. Last year, nearly 2,000 people died from opioid overdoses in Massachusetts—that’s an average of 5 deaths per day. More than half of these deaths were among people 25 to 44 years old.
Although less than a year old, We Are Allies has already sparked interest in Boston and beyond. It’s backed by the General Electric Foundation. It’s run by a team of clinicians, engineers, designers and people in recovery, with Mandile at the helm. The nonprofit’s approach to combating the opioid epidemic hinges on three components: a website with educational resources, lapel pins for solidarity and naloxone response cases.
It’s the naloxone response cases that have generated the most media buzz. We Are Allies encourages citizen volunteers to carry naloxone—the opioid reversal drug available over the counter at many pharmacies—so that they may respond to opioid overdoses. The cases can be clipped to backpacks, purses or belts and can fit the nasal spray version of naloxone.. Naloxone is safe and easy to use and has saved thousands of lives in Massachusetts, according to the state’s health and human services office. We Are Allies’ naloxone response case has already saved at least one life.
We Are Allies’ mission goes beyond saving lives—it also wants to fight the stigma faced by people suffering from addiction. The pins and cases are purple, the color of addiction awareness; the nonprofit hopes that seeing allies with this gear will make people suffering from addiction feel less alone. Further, the website provides information about the opioid epidemic and training videos for administering the nasal spray to a person who has overdosed.
“There are a lot of misperceptions of opioid use being a moral failing,” said Kristian Olson, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-founder of We Are Allies. “What we’re hoping to do is change attitudes and remove stigma enough so that more people get into recovery.”
In his nearly 20 years at MGH, Olson has seen opioid-related visits become increasingly common, as hospital beds fill with patients who have overdosed. In early September, he saw four patients, all of them under 30 years old, with anoxic brain injury from opioid overdoses. “That drove me crazy,” he said. “I felt like there was nothing I could do.”
“The opioid epidemic is really touching everyone’s life in Massachusetts,” said Ben Bearnot, a physician at MGH Charlestown and co-founder of We Are Allies. “There’s rarely someone you meet that doesn’t have a family member or close friend who is dealing with addiction or has died from an overdose. But lot of those stories are not being told right now, because of the stigma around addiction.”
Bearnot recently demonstrated the naloxone response case at a training session organized by the Charlestown Coalition. Held at a recovery house in Charlestown, the session drew a crowd of about 30 people in early recovery.
“They seemed really enthusiastic to have a way to carry their Narcan with them everywhere they go,” said Bearnot, referring to naloxone by one of its brand names. “A lot of guys really wanted to externally show their role in the fight against the opioid overdose epidemic.”
Moving forward, We Are Allies plans to expand its awareness campaign. This includes manufacturing more cases (there are currently around 400) and recruiting more allies (over 100 have registered so far, according to the nonprofit’s website). We Are Allies will also continue to raise awareness at local events. It recently attended the Moving Beyond Stigma Forum, held on May 23 at William James College. It plans to hold its own event at GE’s Farnsworth St. headquarters sometime in July. Additionally, Mandile, also founder of Veterans Alternative Healing, has met with leaders such as Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer in the Obama administration, and Senator Elizabeth Warren to discuss the cause.
“It’s getting an overwhelming response,” said Olson. “We’re being contacted from across the country. I think it is really empowering.”
The most fulfilling part of the work for Mandile is “just being able to help again.” His inbox is flooded with emails from people who have loved ones or who are themselves wrestling with addiction. “It’s been going on for too long. We want to change that,” he said. He went on to thank his team, GE and MGH. “I was amazed that there were that many people [who] cared and knew,” he said. “I was used to being in circles where no one understood.”
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