GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Kelly Galbraith never had a problem revealing the rock-bottom depths from which she clawed her way back.
But she couldn’t bring herself to talk about the tool that helped her make the climb.
"That says it all," said Galbraith, referring to the extent of the stigma surrounding medication assisted treatment, also known as MAT.
"I’ve never felt even a tiny bit uncomfortable sharing that I was a piece of crap, thief, prostitute, lying, heroin crack addict who knew no boundaries," said Galbraith, now two years into recovery.
But this is the first time the 32-year-old Grand Rapids woman has talked publicly about how Suboxone helped her achieve recovery.
It’s been nine months since Galbraith’s story first aired on 24 Hour News 8. Since then, it’s gotten more than 290,000 views online, and Galbraith has received well wishes from around the world, including a note from an inspired YouTube viewer in South Africa.
"It’s time," said Galbraith, referencing her decision to speak out now about her use of medication assisted treatment. "I should not feel ashamed and scared about what people say because the reality is, I know people that refused to get on medication because they were afraid of what people would say about them and used drugs and died."
That’s why Galbraith is determined now to fight the stigma that exists -- even within the recovery community itself -- surrounding the use of medication assisted treatments to wean off opioids.
She knows from personal experience that it works.
"I’ve been to treatment 19 times," she said. "I tried every single possible way to get clean and in the end, (Suboxone) is what has gotten me to this success and to this point in my life."
Suboxone, a brand name for buprenorphine, is an opioid itself, but it’s much weaker than heroin and even methadone. The medication reduces psychological cravings and painful withdrawal symptoms by restoring balance to brain chemistry altered by addiction, allowing people to focus on recovery work, including required counseling and behavioral therapies.
Research has established that MAT in combination with non-medication therapies can significantly increase chances for sustained recovery from opioid addiction.
Even so, Galbraith and others in the recovery community say stigma persists.
"For whatever reason in society, people want to shame you and delegitimize your recovery because you choose to take a medically assisted treatment route," said Galbraith. "I know for a fact there are people out there who will not go and get on MAT because of the stigma attached to it because you are not "clean" if you take the medication."
According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the federal agency in charge of behavioral health, MAT is "greatly underused" in part due to "misconceptions about substituting one drug for another."
"(One of the) misperceptions is that it makes people high," said Dr. Sandy Dettmann, Kelly Galbraith’s addiction doctor. "Someone who is opioid dependent and takes Suboxone, it does not make them high. It makes them feel normal and able to function and do the recovery work and learn to live life on life’s terms and rebuild their lives."
Dettmann compares medication assisted treatment for an opioid-addicted person to insulin for a Type 2 diabetic.
"If you don’t take your insulin, you end up blind with kidney failure, and your legs chopped off," explained Dettmann. "You have to take your insulin and manage your diet and lifestyle. The same is true in addiction. You take your Suboxone, and you participate in meetings and counseling. It’s about comprehensive disease care."
In addition to debunking myths about MAT, Galbraith and Dettmann are fighting to increase its availability as well.
After Galbraith successfully completed a treatment program at Best Drug Rehabilitation in Manistee, Michigan two years ago, she moved to Grand Rapids.
It was at that point that she sought medication assisted treatment.
"After 19 treatment centers, and every other possible outlet I tried, I told myself I needed more," recalled Galbraith. "I had a list of 50 or 60 phone number I got off of Google search to find a doctor that would take Medicaid that would help get me on Suboxone."
But Galbraith could not find a doctor, so she started buying the medication off the street.
"I bought if off the street for about three months, and on my own accord I would take it. I gave myself a regimen. I took only the amount I knew I needed because I was personally ready to do whatever it took to not go back to that lifestyle," she said.
Then, a friend directed Galbraith to the Dettmann Center.
She’s been Dettmann’s patient ever since.
"This woman’s life was saved by Suboxone," said Dettmann, sitting next to Galbraith for an interview with Target 8. "And we’ve got people out there who can’t get access to treatment."
The state of Michigan acknowledges that not enough doctors are licensed and willing to prescribe Suboxone.
Leaders at Michigan’s Department of Health and human Services say they’re working to increase the number of prescribers, as well as access to medication assisted treatment overall.
Right now, there are 1,100 physicians in Michigan who have the Drug Enforcement Agency certification necessary to prescribed Subuxone for Medicaid patients. But, just 220 of them write the majority of the prescriptions.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services increased the number of opioid treatment patients each physician could enroll to 275, up from the previous limit of 100.
In an effort to get care to an underserved population, Dr. Dettmann is now partnering with Arbor Circle to provide medication assisted treatment to Medicaid recipients in Kent and Allegan counties.
She’s also looking forward to prescribing Sublocade, a new, injectable, long-acting version of Suboxone recently approved by the FDA.
Meanwhile, Galbraith is attending Grand Rapids Community College and working as a peer support specialist at Sanford House, a drug rehabilitation program in Grand Rapids.
She and Dettmann intend to continue speaking out together in support of medication assisted treatment.
"Why should it matter if a person chooses to take a medication to stop doing these things? To stop dying form a preventable cause? Why should that matter to society?" questioned Galbraith. "At the end of the day, whatever it takes for a person to stop using drugs and killing themselves and hurting their families is what they should do."
**Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Dr. Dettmann's last name as Dettman. We regret the mistake, which has been fixed.
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