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Rural community college helps bring opioid crisis conversation out into the open

Peter Medlin

U.S. overdose deaths are at an all-time high. There weremore than 100,000overdose deaths in the United States from December 2020 to December 2021.

LaSalle County has one of the highest overdose death rates in Illinois. It also has high rates of opioid-related hospitalizations and emergency department visits.

But, even in the face of those statistics, the opioid crisis is often still described as a secret hidden in plain sight. Illinois Valley Community College’s recent “One Book, One College” project tried to bring that secret out into the light.

Jayna Leipart Guttilla is the college’s collection, development and access librarian. She helped organize this year’s “One Book” initiative focused on the book “Death in Mud Lick” by Eric Eyre, which illustrates how opioids took over a West Virginia mining community.

The book was a jumping-off point to delve into conversations about how the epidemic started and what it looks like in Illinois. Leipart Guttilla calls it less of a book club and more of a set of community meetings with students, faculty and experts.

“We are an hour away from any other [higher] educational institution. So we are we reach many people in rural areas, much more than I was initially aware of,” she said. “You read articles about the opioid epidemic, but what does that mean? It's just words on a page. When you hear the stories of families of people who were loved and cared for who have passed, it really takes on another dimension.”

IVCC teamed up with local harm reduction and recovery organization “Perfectly Flawed.” Its founder Luke Tomsha was an injection drug user for over 14 years and is now trying to build a safe place for people navigating substance use or a path to recovery.

“There's so much stigma out there related to substance use, and we've criminalized drug users," he said. "For so long, we've criminalized human behavior when, in fact, we needed to support the people who are struggling."

That perception of people with Substance Use Disorder is why Tomsha says education is so vital. And creating an empathetic environment with IVCC for the community to share their experiences made “One Book” all the more impactful.

Lori Brown also joined the college’s project. She’s the founder of “Buddy’s Purpose” -- an overdose awareness group she created after she lost her son to an overdose. IVCC center for accessibility and neuro diversity’s Tina Hardy says hearing Lori and Luke inspired other people to talk about their and their family’s experiences with addictive behavior.

“We had one of our nursing instructors step forward and tell her story that she said she really hasn't told," said Hardy. "I thought that was really remarkable of her to step out and publicly put that out there. But I think it also helps our students, in the long run, appreciate who we have here and maybe foster closer connections.”

She said it was a challenge to engage students, especially when they started and events were mostly online, but eventually, they had students ask really good questions. It helped that “Death in Mud Lick” author Eric Eyre reached out to Illinois Valley and participated in their analysis of his book.

Conversations around “Death In Mud Lick” led to a discussion about issues like unethical prescribing practices. It hit close to home. In 2018, a LaSalle County physician was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the illegal distribution of opioids.

But with a crisis with so many layers, they couldn’t cover everything. Tomsha says continuing education is crucial.

“There are so many racial disparities in the war on drugs as well that we didn't even touch on in the book," he said. "In predominately white communities, we might not think it affects us, but it does."

This Spring, Gov. J.B. Pritzker unveiled an “Overdose Action Plan” to limit opioid overdoses. Tomsha was one of the few people with lived experience on the state’s Opioid Overdose Prevention & Recovery Steering Committee that made recommendations for the report.

Now, he says, it’s about implementation and more education around issues like the Fentanyl-tainted drug supply, harm reduction techniques and life-saving medications like Naloxone.

Even though Illinois Valley’s “One Book, One College” project on “Death In Mud Lick” is over, Jayna Leipart Guttilla says the conversations can’t stop.

“It affects more people than you realize. It certainly affects people in my family," she said. "And it's not something I would necessarily want to talk about. But I felt so empowered by the work that we did. I was really so honored to have the space to discuss these issues that are affecting people and that they don't have to feel shame about.”

Tomsha says anyone using substances, seeking support, or treatment – can find Perfectly Flawed’s text and call line at perfectlyflawed.org.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.