South Carolina

Horry County leads South Carolina in opioid deaths. It also lacks treatment beds

Patients talk addiction and how it's affected their lives

Women at the Shoreline Behavioral Health Women's Recovery Center, talk about the impact that drug addictions have had on their lives and their hope for recovery. Friday, September 21, 2017.
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Women at the Shoreline Behavioral Health Women's Recovery Center, talk about the impact that drug addictions have had on their lives and their hope for recovery. Friday, September 21, 2017.

When she arrived at Shoreline Behavioral Health Services, Britteny hadn’t seen her daughter in seven months. She was homeless, drifting between Myrtle Beach and Conway, and the relationship with her family was damaged.

She was also a heroin and methamphetamine user, and had tried to detox several times before. It wasn’t until she came to Shoreline that she was able to see her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter again.

“She remembered who I was, so that was huge for me,” Britteny said. “But I mean it was the best feeling ever, because I was waiting to die. I really was. I felt like I had no more purpose in life.”

Many of the women who stay in the 10-bed residential program at Shoreline Behavioral Health Services in Conway come to the center because they are at risk of losing their children. The Sun News agreed to refer to these women only by their first names to avoid identifying their children and because some of Shoreline’s clients have escaped dangerous relationships.

Ashli, a Dillon native, had tried several recovery programs in the past without staying sober. Missy, a heroin and alcohol abuser, had been clean for 40 days, the longest period since she started using drugs at 15.

Emily, an intravenous heroin user, had already completed the program and was 120 days clean when she relapsed a week ago.

“This is a life-or-death disease,” Emily said. “No matter what other people think, you can try your hardest not to use, but if you are an addict without working with some sort of a program, you’re going to die.”

Horry County leads South Carolina counties in deaths caused by opioid overdose, according to data from the Department of Health and Environmental Control. In 2016, 101 people died of opioid overdoses in Horry County; Charleston County had the next-closest amount, with 65.

Addiction to opioids, a powerful class of drugs that includes some pain medications and illegal substances like heroin, is particularly pernicious. Many people are introduced to the drugs after an accident or medical procedure.

Britteny said her latest stretch of addiction started when she was prescribed Roxicodone after giving birth by Cesarian section in a different state. When she came to South Carolina, her supply of pills was cut off, so she moved on to heroin.

There is only one medical provider in Horry County that offers medically supervised opioid detox, and few residential programs for rehabilitation after. Lighthouse Behavioral Health Hospital in Conway has 87 acute-care beds, which might serve drug addicts or other clients, like those who are suicidal, spokesman Jason Self said.

Shoreline offers a longer-term residential rehabilitation program that prioritizes serving women who are pregnant, HIV or AIDS positive or intravenous drug users. Women who are at risk of losing their children through the S.C. Department of Social Services are also frequent clients. About 20 women are on a wait list for the residential program now, Program Coordinator Ryedenna Simon-McQueen said.

Executive Director John Coffin said the center used to offer a broader rehabilitation program for men and women. But the program was costly to operate, and Horry County pulled its funding around the time of the 2008 financial crisis.

“Unless these programs are heavily supported by state and or local governments, they tend to go under,” Coffin said.

Drug addiction is a financially devastating disease, he said, and if users lose their jobs or family support, they’re often left without insurance. Shoreline’s current residential clients often pay with Medicaid, but Coffin said that option may start to disappear if the program’s budget is slashed by federal lawmakers.

Finding treatment

Last week, a slew of public health professionals and people impacted by the epidemic of opioid addiction gathered at a hearing held by the S.C. House Opioid Abuse Prevention Study Committee, which has been touring the state and soliciting testimony.

“From a law enforcement perspective, you’re just not going to arrest your way out of it,” said Horry County Sheriff Philip Thompson. He added, “This is not just something they can stop doing. They need help, they need assistance.”

Area officials have embarked on several information campaigns to inform the public about the epidemic of opioid addiction and abuse. Local law enforcement agencies around the area have medication take-back programs, where residents can drop off unused medication. Coastal Carolina University recently released a PSA about drug abuse.

There are also other resources for addicts in Horry County, including Center of Hope, which distributes medication like Suboxone and Methadone and offers counseling. Program Director Kristan Beglin said the clinic, which serves Horry and Georgetown counties and surrounding areas, is intended to allow clients to function without getting physically sick from withdrawal. She declined to say how many clients come to the center. Shoreline operates a clinic in Forestbrook that offers medical services and Suboxone or other medication-assisted treatments to drug users. The Coastal Recovery Center in Myrtle Beach offers an outpatient detox program.

Robyn Causey, a professor at Horry Georgetown Technical College who is completing a dissertation on addiction treatment, has another idea, however: a one-stop-shop for treatment that would allow clients to stay between three and six months, much longer than many rehabilitation programs. She said the program would include peer coaching from other people who have overcome addiction and services like job training.

The facility would also include detox for patients who are ready to go through it, Causey said.

“There needs to be, in my mind, a full continuum of services, but we have to have treatment’re hearing parents beg police officers to lock their children up and keep them in jail, because they don’t have an alternative,” she said.

Christian Edwards, a former heroin user who works with Causey, said he usually takes people who are ready to go through detox to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston or LRADAC, a treatment center in Columbia.

“A lot of people are willing to do something and want to help and know how to help, but it’s a lack of funding,” Edwards said. “[There’s] not money to be had.”

Transitioning out of a facility after treatment can be a challenge as well. At Shoreline, many of the women told The Sun News the idea of leaving was “terrifying.” However, there’s a plan in place for many of the clients when they leave.

Britteny, who said this week she would be 60 days sober on Saturday, will leave in two weeks. She has lined up a job as a hairdresser and will live in Conway.

“Everything’s already been taken care of. I have doctors now, I have a dentist, I have an eye doctor, I have transitional housing,” she said. “They’re actually preparing you to be successful.”

Chloe Johnson: 843-626-0381, @_ChloeAJ