Working unassumingly from the living room of her house in North California, Tracey Helton Mitchell has taken it upon herself to save the lives of people addicted to heroin and other opioids. She has been posting doses of the generic version of naloxone, a medication which rapidly reverses opioid overdose, to whoever asks her for it. Known as the “heroin heroine” on social media, Mitchell is aware that she is breaking the rules by mailing prescription drugs through the U.S. Postal Service. She believes that the law is wrong and her actions constitute “civil disobedience.”
Mitchell got addicted to opioids when she was 18 years old and has survived several overdoses. She lived on the streets, injected heroin into the bottom of her feet and funded her addiction through prostitution. Mitchell took the help of support groups and therapy to overcome a decade of addiction. She subsequently became a certified addiction treatment specialist and has been clean since then. Her struggles have been documented in her book “The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin.” Currently, she lives with her husband and three children and works as a manager of a San Francisco city public health program.
The distribution of naloxone is entirely Mitchell’s initiative. During the last four years, she has mailed over 500 doses across America and knows of at least 238 lives that her posts have saved. “I just felt like people all over the United States are dying unnecessarily, and if I had something that I could do to try to help them, then that’s something that I wanted to try to do,” she told CNN. On being requested for naloxone, Mitchell first directs people to places in their vicinity so that they can receive in-person training on its use. She then mails the drug to them only if they cannot obtain it themselves.
Mitchell refused to disclose the source of naloxone doses which she keeps under her bed. It is believed that the naloxone is donated to her. She reportedly spends $2,000 annually toward the cost of syringes, packaging and shipment.
Urgent need to provide naloxone to people who need it
Naloxone is available in many pharmacies, and a prescription is not required to purchase it in most states. However, the cost can be exorbitant, particularly for people without insurance. Recent years have seen massive increase in price of naloxone, in some cases it has been nearly 600 percent. The rising prices present significant obstacles in the efforts to prevent overdose deaths. Despite a prescription usually not being required, people need to ask a pharmacist for naloxone. Dependent individuals are apprehensive of the stigma and even fear arrest in case their addiction is discovered.
Juliana H. Zschoche, emergency medicine clinical pharmacy specialist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, explained the rationale behind Mitchell’s success. She said, “It may be easier to do this from behind a screen, and they (people dependent) may feel more comfortable getting it from someone whom they can relate to as she experienced the problem herself.”
Suzanne A. Nesbit, another clinical pharmacy specialist in pain management at Hopkins, supported Zschoche when she emphasized that there is a real need to provide naloxone to people who require it. Both the experts supported Mitchell, who also said that the availability of naloxone needs to increase significantly, and that such a program should be “fully funded.”
Mitchell said that she might be “just one person trying to make a difference.” However, for those whose lives that she has saved, no amount of gratitude is enough. Ryan Coleman from Augusta, Georgia is one such person, who was saved after overdosing on heroin – his roommate administered naloxone, which was sent by Mitchell. Coleman became acquainted with Mitchell on a social media sub-group for opioid users. A similar incident occurred with Coleman’s friend Ryan Gillian, who overdosed on potent heroin. It took three shots of naloxone – all provided by Mitchell – to revive him.
Current treatment system needs to be overhauled
Mitchell’s memoir not only provides details about her addiction and recovery; it also shares insights regarding the current heroin epidemic. She had previously stated that the current treatment system needs to recognize the unique needs of individuals dependent on opioids and reach out to them accordingly. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, the requirement is for “a variety of different kinds of treatment interventions that address people’s needs.” This assumes significant importance in view of the latest data which shows an over six-fold increase in heroin overdose deaths.
Mitchell asserted that there is an absence of education regarding long-term recovery and how events unfold over time. She highlighted the struggle of dealing with untreated depression, anxiety and other emotional states, such as shame and guilt after achieving sobriety. Since becoming clean, Mitchell has battled post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the “constant specter” of depression and suicidal thoughts. Her struggle with these emotions prompted her to pen her memoir. She also recollected her addiction days when some people told her that she should die. Through her efforts she wants to prove that drug users are human beings who need to be safe and deserve to live.
Recovery from heroin addiction
Sovereign Health understands the plight of someone who is unable to discontinue the use of deadly drugs such as heroin despite knowing about their damaging effects. Our customized heroin addiction treatment programs at Sovereign Health of California are designed to offer holistic treatment. If you or your loved one is battling an addiction to heroin, call our 24/7 helpline or chat online with our certified experts to know more about our state-of-the-art heroin treatment centers spread across California and other states of the U.S.