At Taylor school, Dingell discusses family’s opiate use

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell knows both sides of the issue when it comes to opiate use and abuse.

Her husband, John, a former member of Congress, suffers from chronic pain and uses prescription medication to manage his pain levels.

She also had a sister and a father who became addicted to prescription medication when Dingell was a child.

Her baby sister, Mary Grace, began use around the age of 9 or 10, Dingell says, and her father abused pills when she and her siblings were young.

“I had some pretty hard times ...There were days when we would hide in the closet together,” Dingell, D-Dearborn, told nearly 500 students at Truman High School in Taylor who were gathered Thursday for a school assembly on opioid education and prevention.

Her sister died of an overdose around the age of 40, Dingell said. The congresswoman told the students gathered in the school gym she did not want the same fate for them.

“We want to help you. If you do have a problem, talk to somebody ... If you don’t have a friend, I will talk to you. I don’t want you to be Mary Grace,” Dingell said.

Dingell was joined Thursday by fellow U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., school officials and local police and fire chiefs and judges who urged the students to hear the statistics on addiction and the stories of a young woman who barely survived her addiction, which started in high school with prescription drug abuse.

Shelby Chaltry, now 26, is in recovery in the District Court Regional Drug/Sobriety Treatment Program. She told students how in high school her alcohol and marijuana use lead to abusing Vicodin, Oxycontin and Adderall.

“Those were everywhere and it wasn’t long before we were using them all the time,” she said.

Soon Chaltry became a heroin addict and found herself passed out in the back of an ambulance. Even after that, she continued to use, she told students.

An arrest got her into treatment and she has been sober for 18 months, Chaltry said. She now takes care of her daughter and attends college.

“I had a second chance. Most people like me don’t. ... They’re all dead now,” she said.

Simone Calvas, a substance abuse prevention counselor for Beaumont and community organizer for the Taylor Substance Abuse Prevention Taskforce, said in 2016, nearly 5.6 million opiate pills were dispensed in Taylor, which has a population of 62,000.

That would mean on average, every man, woman and child would have gotten 90.59 pills.

“I don’t think kids realize how serious this is. If we can save one life, we want to,” Calvas said.

Law enforcement officials told students they would not be arrested if they showed up at a police or fire station asking for help with an addiction.

“You can come to our station and I promise you we won’t put you in handcuffs and take you off to jail,” said interim Police Chief John Blair.

Over the past decade and a half, opioid poisonings have nearly doubled among children and adolescents, according to Dingell’s staff.

Research shows that any legitimate use of opioids before 12th grade confers a one-third greater risk of non-medical opioid use in early adulthood.

Passionae Smith, 17, said talking to health professionals, law enforcement and others helps young people understand the depth of the problem.

“It starts with us. We have to be the people who end it. It has to be our generation,” she said. “The first step is to be educated. Without it, you don’t know what you are trying to fight.”

Dingell and Kennedy are members of the U.S. House Bipartisan Heroin Task Force.