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Heroin, Opioid Detoxification Is Difficult

Profuse sweating, extreme chills, frequent vomiting, nausea, insomnia and muscle pain are just some of the challenges awaiting someone headed toward heroin or opioid withdrawal.

“Imagine the worst flu you’ve ever had, and multiply that by 100. That is what it’s like to withdraw from heroin,” said Jeremy Sagun, operations manager for Substance Abuse Services at Northwood Health Systems.

“Going through detox with these individuals can be an extreme challenge,” he added.

Sagun joined Northwood Director of Operations Ed Nolan to discuss the cases their agency handles at its four Northern Panhandle sites: Wheeling, Weirton, Moundsville and New Martinsville. They said the proliferation of relatively cheap heroin, combined with the continued increase in chemical dependency among Upper Ohio Valley residents, is making it difficult to stay ahead of the problem.

“We probably see about 200 patients per week in our substance abuse program,” Sagun said. “The recent trend is toward opioids, particularly heroin. Despite the best efforts of everyone, including law enforcement, it just seems to be getting worse.”

The first step on the road to recovery involves the victim deciding to seek treatment. Sagun said the majority of the clinic’s patients seek treatment on their own, rather than coming because law enforcement or employers are forcing them.

“There is something that they realize they have to address,” Sagun said of the patients. “They realize they can’t fix it themselves and that that need help.”

If someone is truly an addict, they enter what Northwood officials call “crisis stabilization,” which others would more commonly refer to detoxification or detox. This involves a full commitment to staying at the clinic for the duration of the detox.

“We offer them a safe place. We have medical staff to monitor their symptoms and help them adjust in as comfortable a manner as possible,” Nolan said.

“The biggest key is to get them out of the environment in which they were doing the drugs,” he added.

There is no set time for someone to remain in detox, as Sagun and Nolan said it just depends on the severity of the addiction and what substances are involved.

Once the person is finished with detox, the next step is “intense outpatient.” Sagun said this involves the client engaging in both individual and group therapy at least five days per week for at least three hours per day. The person must pass a drug test every day.

“Once you detox someone from a drug, it is important to address the issues for why they started using the drug in the first place,” Sagun said.

“It is important to transition from the drug. We try to give them something healthy to do every day,” Nolan added.

The final step before discharging clients involves “regular outpatient,” which Nolan and Sagun said is not as frequent as the former.

“Some of it involves intense psychological cravings,” Sagun said of drug addiction. “If you try not to breathe, at some point, your body will take over and make you breathe.”

Although most of the cases Northwood handles involve heroin or other opioids, Sagun said they also serve clients addicted to cocaine, alcohol, methamphetamine or sedatives.

Regardless of the substance involved, Sagun said anyone who believes they are addicted and need help should go to a treatment center as soon as possible.

“Most of our patients have West Virginia Medicaid, but we also have some clients with private insurance,” he said. “Someone who is struggling with the disease of addiction needs to get help.”

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