Opioid epidemic is tragically personal for public health expert
Deborah Thompson is a legislative liaison for the Iowa Department of Public Health and her husband died last year from a heroin overdose. Rodney White/The Register
DES MOINES — Deborah Thompson is usually the person Iowa legislators rely on for dispassionate facts and figures on public health issues. This week, in a meeting about the danger of opioid addiction, the prominent Iowa Department of Public Health staffer sat at the end of a conference table and offered something deeper.
“Today would have been my seventh wedding anniversary,” she told legislators. “And so I felt compelled to speak to you all about this issue, because I have a unique perspective on it. My husband, Joe Thompson, passed away from an accidental heroin overdose September 2016. He left me and his 1-year-old son, Lincoln.”
The legislators all know Deborah Thompson, who has been a steady presence at the Statehouse for 13 years. She is the health department’s legislative liaison, whose job is to help state leaders understand public health problems and possible solutions.
Thompson, 35, has attended countless meetings about the national epidemic of addiction to opioids, including pain pills and heroin. After many of those meetings, she would quietly go home and try to help her husband deal with the problem.
Few people at the Statehouse realized how personal the opioid discussions were for Thompson. That changed with her testimony late Monday afternoon.
Thompson addressed a six-member committee of senators and representatives, whose goal is to propose legislation to help prevent opioid abuse and treat addiction. They’re considering options such as requiring doctors to check a registry of previous prescriptions before ordering pain pills for patients. The panel also is looking for ways to expand and improve treatment services.
In her surprise testimony, Deborah Thompson spoke in a calm voice, reading from notes on her smartphone and urging the legislators to really see how addiction can drag down anyone.
She recounted how her husband came from a loving family, starred as an Indianola High School wrestler, earned a Grand View University degree and built a strong marriage. But he suffered lingering pain from a serious car accident in 2004. His longtime doctor “wanted to treat his pain with a fire hose instead of a garden hose — that was the exact quote,” she said.
The doctor didn’t mean to harm his patient, she said. But the heavy doses of pain pills he prescribed sparked her husband’s overwhelming addiction to narcotic drugs.
Deborah Thompson told legislators how her husband “doctor-shopped,” going to multiple clinics to obtain prescriptions. He also used his job at United Parcel Service to steal packages shipped from “pill mill” pharmacies in Florida. When prescription pills weren’t available, he turned to street drugs, including heroin.
At times, Joe Thompson got on top of his addiction for significant stretches of time. His wife said he did well for more than two years on Suboxone, a narcotic medication that can help people stop taking heroin and pain pills without suffering terrible withdrawal symptoms. The Suboxone was provided by UCS Healthcare, a Des Moines agency that practices what is known as “medication assisted treatment,” combining such medicine with counseling.
But then Joe Thompson went to another treatment center, where counselors insist on abstinence from all drugs, including Suboxone and methadone, his wife said. The counselors at the new center said being on Suboxone or methadone was just like being on heroin, which Deborah Thompson now thinks is absurd. Without the medication, Joe Thompson’s cravings rekindled, and he was soon using heroin again.
He disappeared after relapsing in September 2016. Deborah Thompson tracked his cellphone to a parking lot near a bike trail on Des Moines’ north side. She and his mother went there and found him in his car. They called for an ambulance, whose crew smashed a car window to get to him. She remembers watching an emergency medical technician feeling for a pulse, then looking at a colleague and shaking his head.
An autopsy confirmed Joe Thompson overdosed on heroin. The medical examiner told his wife he’d apparently bought a particularly powerful version of the drug that had recently hit Des Moines’ streets.
“All of the days of Joe’s life, even the worst ones, were worth living,” Thompson told legislators. She recounted how after two previous overdoses, rescuers used an antidote called naloxone to revive him. She noted that skeptics sometimes claim naloxone is a waste of money, because it just postpones addicts’ deaths. In her husband’s case, that’s arguably true, she said. But, she said, “he was able to see his son walk for the first time and talk for the first time. And he attended Lincoln’s first birthday party, where he saw many of his friends and family for the last time. It was a great day.”
Three hundred people showed up for his funeral, she said. “He was loved,” she said. “… People loved him even when he didn’t love himself.”
Deborah Thompson said she hesitated to speak so publicly, because she didn’t want legislators to think her personal tragedy would color her advice on what they should do on the issue. She wasn’t sure she would take the microphone until after the hearing started. But she decided that telling her family’s story could help counter the stigma many people feel toward those struggling with addictions.
She realizes now that even she and her husband sometimes looked down on other people experiencing what he was going through. Even when he relapsed, she believed he wouldn’t actually die from his drug use. “I just thought it was going to be different with us. I just never, never expected that to be how our story ended,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “I just didn’t feel like that’s how it was supposed to go.”
In contrast, Thompson recalled how sympathetic people were when her mother showed odd behaviors after she developed a brain tumor several years ago. Everyone understood the symptoms were caused by a physical problem in the brain. Addiction should be seen the same way, she said.
“I know it’s a disease, because I know Joe would have never chosen to leave Lincoln and I,” she told legislators Monday. “He loved the life he had with us. It’s a disease. It’s not a choice.”
After she was done speaking, legislators applauded her courage and vowed to take action. Rep. Charles Isenhart, D-Dubuque, noted many other Iowa families share Thompson’s experience with addiction, but often keep it quiet. “I think people would be surprised by how many people in this building have been touched by this, including legislators,” he said.
Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant, who is one of the panel’s leaders, has pledged not to back down in attempts to strengthen Iowa’s opioid laws. After the hearing, he walked over to Thompson, took her hand and thanked her for having the courage to testify so personally. “You’re something else,” he said.
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