Keith Minnar describes his struggle with a painkilling drug addiction that nearly cost him his life and his family, during a town hall gathering last week. MARK KLAAS, Auburn Reporter

Confronting a drug epidemic

Community addresses growing heroin, opioid problem at town hall gathering

He was 41 years old, had a good job, a wife and children he adored, a Harley he loved to ride, an RV and more.

He did not yet know it, however, but an injury Keith Minnar sustained in early 2016 would cast a threatening shadow over everything that mattered to him.

One day a friend, seeing Minnar out of sorts, handed him a percocet.

“It’ll make you feel better,” the friend suggested.

It did. But when that pill wore off, Minnar swallowed another. And when that one wore off, another.

Didn’t take long for Minnar to figure out that absent the pills, he felt sick. So he kept taking.

Following a scenario so familiar today it may as well be scripted, Minnar became an addict.

Luckily – or unluckily, depending on how one looks at it – he had enough money in the bank to stave off the pain, to keep the lights on and his addiction in the dark. Over time, however, the high cost of the pills would consume almost all the material things that mattered to him – his bike, his RV, his silver. Most important of all, it nearly cost him his family.

“It was costing me over $600 a day for about eight months,” Minnar explained. “I knew I could not afford $600 a day forever. I knew the next thing would be slamming something into my veins, which is much cheaper, I hear.”

Rather than do that, he decided to take his own life.

“I had everything set,” Minnar said. “But it didn’t work the way I planned.”

Opting for treatment, the Auburn man saved the life he had planned to end.

“I’m doing very well, in fact it’s been like 283 days,” Minnar said last Thursday evening, words muffled by the applause of a packed house that had come to learn about the local share of the opioid and heroin epidemic, in a town hall discussion at Auburn Avenue Theater. As the crowd knew, just talking about his addiction was an act of courage for Minnar, as he had never spoken publicly on the subject before.

Other speakers were: Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus; Auburn Police Cmdr. Steve Stocker, who in 2016 was a member of King County’s Opioid Task Force; Deputy Chief Kevin Olson of the Valley Regional Fire Authority; Dr. Steven Anderson, director of emergency medicine at MultiCare Auburn Medical Center; Rose Baldridge, clinical services manager for Valley Cities; and Brad Finegood, assistant division director of the Behavioral Health and Recovery Division of the King County Department of Community and Human Services.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, of the 25 million Americans 12 years or older who suffered from a substance abuse disorder in 2016, two million were hooked on prescription pain relievers, and 591,000 on heroin. What’s more, according to ASAM, drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, 52,404 such deaths occurring in 2016, with 20,101 of those related to prescription pain relievers and 12,990 tied to heroin.

“It’s not just a local issue, it’s not just a county, or a regional or a state issue, or even a national issue, it’s an international crisis, and we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist,” Backus said.

What to do about it

Much of the discussion centered on what Auburn can do to fight the crisis, which too often begins in a doctor’s office or in hospitals, where opioids are overly prescribed.

Anderson, who speaks nationally on the subject, described some of the steps Washington state’s medical community has taken to deal with the epidemic.

“We’ve created what are called … alternatives-to-opioids programs. It doesn’t mean I don’t use opiates in the emergency department, but instead of reaching straight for the oxycontin, and straight for the morphine, I now start where I should: Tylenol, Ibuprofen, physical therapy, ice, all those other things, before I just reach for a narcotic.

“Another way we decrease pill counts on the street is that we have expanded take-back programs. Used to be that the only people that could take drugs back from you was the DEA and the sheriff’s department. Now every hospital should have a program – they don’t, but they should – every pharmacy should have a take-back program to take back the leftover drugs. Because, where do overdose patients get their drugs? Over 50 percent of them get them from a friend or a family member,” Anderson said.

Backus said that whatever the City does, safe injection sites will not be part of its solution.

Stocker said Auburn’s police officers see the carnage on city streets day and night, but their first response is not to arrest – though they can and do – but to counsel, to evaluate, to do everything possible to save that life.

Following a recommendation of the Opioid Task Force, the Auburn Police Department launched a Naloxone (or Narcan) program in September 2016. Sprayed into the nostrils, Naloxone can reverse a drug overdose in as few as 60 seconds. Today, a supply is found in every patrol car and on every Auburn Police officer.

Since last September, Stocker continued, Auburn police have administered Narcan 14 times, “and out of handful of those, there’s no doubt in my mind, the act of an officer saved that person’s life.”

The Valley Regional Fire Authority also employs Naloxone.

“… As first responders, the challenge we have is we do not have the resources to help (addicts). Meaning, when we come across somebody in need on the street, sometimes we don’t have anywhere to take them other than just to the hospital, or resources to tell them where to go,” Stocker said.

To reach people, Finegood said, the community must reduce the shame and prejudice that too often stigmatize addicts.

The bane of opioid overdose hit Finegood personally: he lost his beloved brother, a college graduate with a good career, to heroin 12 years ago. Through tears, he described the devastating call from his father that New Years’s Day.

“He’s like, ‘Are you sitting down?’ Yeah, I’m sitting down. What’s up? And he goes, ‘Your brother’s dead.’ And from there on out, life changes,” said Finegood.

Backus picked up the thread.

“We don’t think poorly of someone who has a broken arm and goes in for treatment. We shouldn’t think poorly of someone who has a substance abuse problem and goes in for treatment,” she said. “It’s our babies, our loved ones, our friends, and we can’t afford to let this happen anymore.”

Deputy Chief Kevin Olson of the Valley Regional Fire Authority, right, talks to the audience as Auburn Police Cmdr. Steve Stocker looks on during the town hall forum last week. MARK KLAAS, Auburn Reporter

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