A Rally of Support
The recent shocking death of Prince from a prescription opioid overdose introduced many to America’s opioid abuse crisis, including many in the music icon’s inner circle and the media, who purportedly had no idea that he secretly battled addiction for years—a common aspect of this exploding healthcare epidemic.
For Bruce Fiene, a 16-year WPI employee in the Academic Technology Center, the story of Prince’s death from fentanyl (a synthetic opioid with 50 times the potency of pharmaceutical grade heroin), as well as how well the artist kept his addiction hidden, hit close to home.
Fiene says two years ago he was just working and raising a family when he discovered, through a family friend, that his 18-year-old son was using heroin. “It came as a complete surprise,” he says.
Bruce learned that, in what appears to be a common path to addiction, his son got his first opioid pill, a prescription Percocet, around the age of 16 from a friend’s medicine cabinet at a party. At 17, he dabbled some more in legal pharmaceuticals, learning to crush and smoke them. By the time he turned 18, Fiene says, his son was shooting up much cheaper, and more readily available, heroin on a regular basis—all without his family’s knowledge. In a matter of months, the star pupil taking college courses while still a high school junior devolved into a dropout, forced to enter rehab full-time. “He lost it all,” says Fiene.
Even worse, Fiene had absolutely no idea what to do or where to go to for help. It was only through a bit of luck that he found Learn to Cope, a nonprofit support network offering education, resources, peer support, and hope for parents and family members coping with a loved one addicted to opiates or other drugs. Founded by Joanne Peterson in 2004, the organization now has over 8,400 members, and is a nationally recognized model for peer support and prevention programming.
Fiene says that at the first Learn to Cope meeting that he and his wife, Tracy, attended, they met other families dealing with nearly identical scenarios. Attending subsequent meetings, they found resources, but, more important, the strength they needed to bolster themselves before they could help their son. Fiene points out that, as its name suggests, Learn to Cope is meant more for parents and families of addicts to heal themselves, “because they spend so much time and energy on the loved one’s addiction, the stress often takes an enormous toll on their mental and physical health … with their whole life revolving around the ups and downs of their child.”
Learn to Cope also pulled back the curtain on the pervasive nature of this epidemic, which cuts across all race, class, cultural, economic, and geographic lines. They were even more horrified to learn how serious the problem has become in their state in just a few short years. Deaths from unintended opioid overdoses in Massachusetts have doubled since 2012. Nationwide statistics are similar, thanks in large part to overprescribing by doctors, insufficient treatment options, and prescription drug education, as well as a lack of law enforcement resources to combat heroin trafficking.
Like many families, the fight against their son’s addiction took a huge toll on Bruce and Tracy, and it wasn’t until last summer that they developed the strength through Learn to Cope to talk publicly about their struggle. Once they did, Bruce became a zealous advocate, recording Public Service Announcements for the Worcester District Attorney’s office and speaking at a Worcester Police Department needle and drug drop event last fall. After those events, several people from the community expressed their appreciation for encouraging them to share their own stories of addiction, and in taking steps to overcome the stigma they felt.
Bruce astride his Harley.
Fiene now serves on the Worcester County Opiate Task Force and is chairman of the subcommittee for Housing and Workforce Development. He is also a trained facilitator and Narcan emergency opiate antidote trainer for Learn to Cope.
Fiene’s sense of mission and of raising awareness didn’t stop there. Three years ago, Bruce and Tracy began riding motorcycles as a hobby, and during their son’s struggles realized riding bikes was a cathartic way to relieve the stress of dealing with their family crisis. While participating in charity rides for The Jimmy Fund and for Goldstar Families on Cape Cod last summer, Bruce was struck with the idea, “Hey, this is something I know I could do to raise money for Learn to Cope.”
He decided to organize Rally 2 Recovery, a 40-mile motorcycle ride from Ware to Worcester this August to fundraise for the charity. Rally 2 Recovery’s mission is to help raise awareness about opioid addiction, with all proceeds going to Learn to Cope for outreach through its education and support groups. The rally will tour through parts of Central Massachusetts that have been hit hard by the current opioid epidemic. Over 1,000 riders and attendees are expected.
Fiene says it took all winter to tackle the logistics for the rally, including launching a fundraising website; getting approval from the Walmart in Ware and from WPI to hold the event on their properties; coordinating with all the local police departments along the route to provide detail officers; and scheduling celebrities and local officials to participate. Fiene says he has gotten lots of help from the community, fellow WPI employees have contributed, and the university has offered the use of its property for the event.
Linda Looft, assistant vice president for government and community relations, said several employees are donating their time to support this cause. “We’re providing the space, and we’re happy to do that. I think it’s such a worthy cause,” she said. “This is a situation that impacts so many people, we feel that it’s important to support this effort.” The rally will use an open lot at Gateway Park as its gathering spot at the end of the event.
PAYING IT FORWARD
“What helped my family and me get through this tragedy was the group Learn to Cope,” Fiene says. “Without them I am not sure things would have turned out as well as they have. Because of this, I have decided to pay it forward and do a fundraiser for them,” Fiene wrote in an email to coworkers in April of this year, explaining his situation while calling for donations and volunteers. He immediately received eight emails from people with loved ones either suffering from addiction or who have recently lost family members to accidental overdose. None of them had ever talked about their experiences openly.
One of the most important aspects of this event, Fiene says, “is to erase the stigma of heroin addiction because the stigma keeps people suffering in silence. Like most people dealing with addiction, you keep quiet and don’t tell friends, family, or co-workers that your kid is a heroin addict.” All six New England governors agree with him, saying in a recent Harvard Medical School forum that fighting the social stigma associated with addiction is key to battling the opioid crisis raging across the region, according to an Associated Press report.
It also took Learn to Cope for Fiene to accept that addiction is a disease, “just like cancer or diabetes that require long-term treatment and compassion.” Unlike those afflictions, there are few walkathons or 5K runs sponsored by scores of participants happy to publicly share their fight. “But,” says Fiene, “this disease is a crisis deadlier than car wrecks or cancer in many areas of the country.” In fact, drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. Opioid addiction is driving the epidemic, with 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin in that same year.
Now 20, Bruce’s son is making great strides in his recovery by staying sober, finding a job, and earning his GED, with hopes of entering WPI soon. Fiene is cautiously optimistic, accepting that addiction is a lifelong struggle. Despite the trauma he and his family have suffered over the past few years, Fiene says, “I’m one of the lucky ones. My son is still alive.”
Proceeds from the Rally 2 Recovery will go directly to support Learn to Cope—a Nonprofit 501(c)(3)—and its programs. All donations and registrations are fully tax deductible. Registration for the ride is available online at www.rally2recovery.com or from 9 to 10:30 a.m. on Ride Day, Saturday, August 13, at the Walmart parking lot at Gibbs Crossing in Ware. The rally will travel with police motorcycle escort on Route 9 from Ware to Worcester, and will end at Gateway Park on the WPI campus. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is expected to speak, in addition to several state representatives, as well as Worcester City Manager Ed Augustus. Donations can be made through the Rally 2 Recovery website.
– BY STEPHEN SNYDER