BAY CITY, Michigan (WJRT) - (03/01/2018) - The opioid epidemic continues to claim lives. Nearly 1,700 people died from opioid and heroin overdoses in Michigan in 2016, up twenty five percent from 2015.
The number of overdose deaths outnumbers the 1,100 providers in the state who are prescribing medication to fight opioid addiction right now.
As our research uncovered, getting help depends largely on where you live.
A mother-daughter night of baking cookies and watching the Bachelor would have been unthinkable for Amanda Ziolkowski three years ago:
"The first thing I would do is shoot up, sometimes I'd wake up in the middle of the night and shoot up," Ziolkowski said during a sit down interview at her mom's home in Bay City.
Amanda's addiction to heroin consumed her every waking, and sometimes sleeping moment.
"You need to get high in order to live," she said, "that's what my brain was telling me."
When she hit rock bottom, she reached out to her mom, who had her check into a rehab center to get help.
"It was that connection to the other addicts that kept me clean," Amanda said.
After fourteen months in recovery, Amanda started using again.
"It's a relapsing disease," she noted, "that needed to happen to be where I'm at today."
Her mom, Lori Ziolkowski is proud of where her daughter is today:
"She'll be 2 years in recovery coming up on the 24th, that's the longest recovery time she's had throughout her four year journey," Lori said.
A journey that included the use of Naltrexone, a non-addictive medication that blocks the euphoric effect of opioid use:
"It reduces your cravings to use and it blocks it so I wouldn't get high," Amanda said.
If she had relapsed while taking it, she would not have achieved the same high as before without life threatening consequences..
While Amanda credits her recovery to a number of factors, including group sessions and therapy, she says the medication helped her stay clean.
"Every night that I took the pill," she said, "like 'you're not going to get high tomorrow, you're just not'."
She now works in a recovery center where she meets women who don't have access to the medication for treatment she's had over the past four years:
"Some of the patients we treat cannot get on it because they don't have anyone in their cities to prescribe it for them after they leave," she said.
Someone trying to change that is Gail McGee, with the Jayne Street recovery center in Saginaw which is operated through the Great Lakes Bay Region Health Center.
Her clinic began administering Naltrexone in the form of a monthly Vivatrol shot 18 months ago.
"Vivatrol reduces cravings, once the cravings are reduced, we feel then they're able to participate in groups and they're able to talk to peer-recovery-coaches," she explained.
The shots can be prescribed by anyone licensed to prescribe medications.
Plans are in the works to set up similar programs in Bad Axe, Shiawassee, and Bay County.
Another medication being used to treat opioid dependence is Buprenorphine.
Right now there is a shortage of physicians certified to prescribe it north of Midland and north of Gaylord.
"We can more easily prescribe the oxycodone that is actually creating all these overdoses than we can prescribe a safer medication," said Dr. Pooja Lagisetty.
Lagisetty works at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as a researcher.
She is also a primary care doctor who is certified to prescribe Buprenorphine products like Suboxone.
"That partial agonist blocks that craving because it is an opioid," Lagisetty said.
While there is the potential to use Suboxone to get high, Lagisetty says they are seeing great success with it.
"We take patients that are on the streets wanting opioids, to patients taking a pill twice a day," she said, "functioning, going to work, being there for their family members."
Physicians have to take an 8-hour course in order to be able to prescribe Suboxone, but Dr. Lagisetty says that shouldn't get in the way of doctors helping patients who are struggling.
"As general practitioners we already have a lot of patients that are on high doses of prescription opioids because of the last ten years," she noted, "we also have a lot of patients that are addicted to opioids and other substances."
"We're in an epidemic right now, and it's our job to be treating these patients," she added.
The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has just received grant funding to develop a program in partnership with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that will provide peer-to-peer support for physicians new at prescribing Buprenorphine.
For more information just click on the link to the left of this story.