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Healing in Huntington

Recovery Emerges in Community Overwhelmed by Addiction

Story by Halle Kendall 

On a sunny morning last spring, a dozen women milled about a four- bedroom residential treatment center tucked on a winding, quiet street. 

One was a nurse, another a former sheriff’s deputy. Several were mothers who had lost custody of their children.

All had had nearly lost their lives to fentanyl.

Huntington, once ground zero for opioid abuse in West Virginia, is now on the front lines of drug recovery, with nonprofit groups stepping in to provide residential treatment and addiction services. The focus is heavily on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Carfentanil, its more potent cousin, is 1,000 times stronger and is used to tranquilize elephants and other large mammals.

“I ended up overdosing, four months pregnant. It was straight fentanyl,” said Rachel Whaples, 27, who sat on the porch with the other women. 

Whaples, a native of Hurricane, survived, but she lost custody of her baby and eventually moved into the treatment center. 

The number of overdose deaths from fentanyl in West Virginia has soared, from 50 deaths in the years before 2015 to nearly 600 deaths in 2017 alone. 

Before fentanyl hit the streets, the state was battling widespread abuse of prescription opioids, such as OxyContin. Drug wholesalers shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pain pill into West Virginia between 2007 and 2012, according to the Washington Post. That’s 433 pain pills for every person in West Virginia. 

Experts say the prescription opioid epidemic perpetuated the new battle with fentanyl and carfentanil.

Three out of four new heroin and fentanyl users once abused prescription opioids, according to the WV Attorney General’s office.

 “When the market for prescription opiate pills dried up, those who depended on them switched to cheaper alternatives, such as heroin,” said Gordon Smith, an epidemiology professor at West Virginia University. “Drug dealers also began to mix fentanyl and carfentanil with heroin to make a stronger -- and far more dangerous -- high.”

 According to a study conducted by Smith and other researchers at WVU earlier this year, deaths from prescription opioids have decreased while fentanyl involvement in overdose deaths has soared.

 At the treatment center in Huntington, Brandy Hughes, 38, has been working to stay clean.

She was once a deputy sheriff committed to preventing drug abuse, but said she began abusing prescription opioids in 2002.

 She said that she soon switched to heroin and had no idea that she was injecting fentanyl until side effects, such as amnesia, began to emerge in 2018.

That year, she said she drove her car to the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Huntington after purchasing heroin from her dealer.

 “As soon as I pulled the needle out of my arm, I knew something was wrong,” Hughes recalled. “I blacked out and when I came to, the EMT told me that I had died and it took three doses of Narcan to bring me back.”

 Narcan, also known as Naloxone, is an opioid antagonist used to treat overdoses in emergency situations.

 In 2016, Huntington, which has a population of about 50,000 people, saw 27 heroin overdoses in the span of four hours after a bad batch of heroin cut with fentanyl was distributed. 

 Now, former addicts are working to turn the county into a statewide hub for treatment and recovery.

“We are so broken, but yet, the most broken people can love you more than anybody in the world because we've longed for that,” said Britney Goble, 36, a recovering addict and mother of four in Huntington. “It’s true that this program loves you back to life.”