WORCESTER – We often hear the phrase, “it takes a village” – a community effort to bring about a desired change or to face a difficult challenge.  

The City of Worcester is taking those words to heart.

On the morning of Thursday, Sept. 7, several courageous city residents and forward thinking medical students from Worcester’s own University of Massachusetts Medical School gathered to build on collaborations across disciplines to improve the health of our community.

In a crowded lecture room, a panel of impacted Worcester residents — led by The East Side of Addiction authors licensed social worker Dr. Jim DiReda,  alcohol and drug counselor Jack Maroney, and Worcester Public Schools Safety Director Rob Pezzella — exchanged questions and answers with a roomful of aspiring physicians

The purpose of the exchange was to increase the knowledge base and understanding from the consumer’s perspective on the “Opioid Epidemic” — an issue that has recently been declared an emergency Public Health Crisis.

The panel was invited to share their personal histories with substance use disorders and to respond to questions that focused on motivation for stopping to use, misconceptions that the public [as well as health care provider] tend to have about addiction, experiences with the healthcare system, and what future providers should know about addiction, recovery, and treatment.

With DiReda, Maroney and Pezzella facilitating the discussion, the panel — which consisted of five women and five men — talked openly of their struggles with substance use.

One of the panelists, State Representative James J. O’Day — a long time vocal proponent for progressive social change — talked about “our kids being at great risk when using drugs and alcohol” and said he was “happy to be here and happy to able to share a little piece of my story.”  

O’Day went on to say, “It is something, quite frankly, that I am incredibly proud of. The life that I have today wouldn’t be what it is if I was keeping [my former substance abuse] anonymous.”

The learning objectives of the evening’s panel discussion were to identify the stigma associated with addiction and behaviors that perpetuate this stigma, understand some of the challenges associated with addiction and substance use and recognize the prevalence of addiction in all socioeconomic and racial groups.

Lily, a second-year medical student, said, “Most of the audience was comprised of first year medical students. For them to be able to hear the strength, honesty, and courage in the stories of these funny, smart, kind people in the first few months of their medical training is an amazing step towards destigmatizing the healthcare providers view of addiction.”

The overall goal of the Substance Use Disorder elective that is being spearheaded by student leaders under faculty supervision is to increase awareness and understanding of substance use disorders, with emphasis on the impact of substance use on the patient, the patient’s family and friends, and the community.

Kelly, a second-year med student and one of the student leaders that hosted the discussion said, “The patient panel offered a diverse perspective on addiction and recovery. Hearing from those in long-term recovery and those who are still in the beginning of their recovery journey was powerful. It showed how this disease is lifelong and therefore, staying active in recovery is the key to successful treatment. I would recommend a session like this one to all healthcare professionals, as it very clearly showed the human component of substance use disorder.”

Dr. DiReda went on to say, “Addiction is a sickness that affects the mind, body, and spirit of those afflicted, wreaking havoc on those around it, including family, friends, relatives, neighbors, and communities. It is going to take a community-wide effort to change it.”  

Stigma, low self-esteem, child custody issues, mental illness, prostitution, sexual assault and human trafficking were all topics that the panel fearlessly and openly discussed. The desperateness of these revelations was not lost on the future physicians who were clearly moved by the forthrightness of the panel and asked questions to increase their understanding.

In summarizing the evening, Hannah, a second-year medical student leader, said, “The patient panel gives students a name, and a face, and a story behind the term ‘substance use disorder.’ This is both humbling and eye-opening and it allows students to encounter an addict as a human being, rather than seeing them as ‘an addict.’  I think this is the most important thing.

Worcester is a community that is facing a very difficult challenge — the impact of drug abuse and addiction.  

The daily news is full of stories of drug busts, robberies, physical violence against innocent victims, scams and a variety of other crimes fueled by addiction.  

We have come to learn that no one individual doctor, judge, or treatment professional alone is powerful enough to change this phenomenon.  It is going to take the work of many to accomplish what needs to be done, and we must form a unified front, working together with the goal of reducing and/or eliminating this deadly malady from our community.  

Doing this will not be easy, but it is possible.

At least that is our belief, which is why we are focusing our energy and efforts on developing relationships with stakeholders in our community to join forces to reverse this deadly trend.  

From every first responder to an overdose call, to the medical staff who treat them, to the providers in detoxes and rehabs, all the way through to outpatient facilities, and doctor’s offices.  Everyone is impacted in some fashion, and/or knows someone who abuses or is addicted to drugs and alcohol.  

We must come together as a community to harness the knowledge and strength needed to face down this deadly foe.