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WNED documentary sets out to understand nationwide opioid epidemic


A new documentary airing on WNED-TV and PBS stations across the country looks at the underlying causes and the impacts of America’s opioid problem. WBFO’s Avery Schneider sat down with the show’s writer and producer John Grant, to find out more about the making of the program.

Avery Schneider (AS): Understanding the Opioid Epidemic was a project two years or more in the making and, in that time, there have been constant developments around the issue. Did keeping up with them as the program was being filmed and produced present any kind of challenge?

John Grant (JG): The biggest challenge, I think, was keeping track of the death and addiction totals because they constantly were going up. The number of people that the CDC reported dying every year, the number of people addicted to opioids and heroin went up every year. So it’s tragic, in a way, that that was the hardest thing to get accurate, and to put a pin in and say, ‘As of today, this number of people are dying every day in America from opioid addiction.’ Beyond that, there were a lot of things that were very consistent – the overprescribing of opioids; the producing of way more opioids by pharmaceutical companies than could possibly be legally consumed in this country; the issues of health insurance and what health insurance will and will not pay for and provide, and the lack of consistency; and the realization that many broad policies and procedures that are enacted don’t really work to the benefit of individual patients.

AS: We regularly see stories about opioids in the news, but most people are never truly confronted with it. In this program, it feels like they will be. Why is that important?

Credit WNED-TV
Writer/Producer John Grant interviews Mike Gallagher, investigative reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, during the making of "Understanding the Opioid Epidemic."

JG: I think more people than you suspect are impacted by it every day. You know, I feel fortunate in my life that nobody in my family, and no real personal friends that I know have an opioid problem. I think that probably puts me in the minority of people in the country.

What we did find was how widespread this issue is. There is no boundary. There is no socio-economic group that’s spared, there’s no minority group that’s spared. There’s no…men and women are equally affected. In some cases women are more affected by the opioid epidemic. So what we found out, in a sense, is that it was very widespread and it affected virtually every sector of the country geographically, and every sector of the population.

AS: WNED has taken on the topic of pain killers and drugs in the past, but this time you’re taking it to the national scale. Last time was regional. So why take it to the national scale this time around?

JG: Well, I think it was the success of the local program we did several years ago that made people realize this was, indeed, a national problem. And I think since we did the local program, it’s become much more of an awareness on the national level of how widespread this is. I think when we did that local program there was some sense that, well this is a Western New York problem. You know, there’s an issue of maybe in an aging industrial city that has a lot of people addicted to pain killers. But then you come to find Buffalo’s no different than West Virginia, and no different than California or any other place in the country. It really has affected every geographic region of the country.

AS: Without giving too much away for the audience that’s going to be watching this, they’ll probably find that much of the discussion around this epidemic has to do with children – be it children lost to the epidemic, or those who have lost their parents to it. Was that something you expected as you set out to do this show?

JG: No. We expected that, like most drug issues, this would be a late teenage and beyond, to adulthood kind of problem. I think some of the most telling images in the program are those sixth graders in West Virginia who tell the most horrific stories of their family life.

In an excerpt from the program, a student at Oceana Middle School describes the impact of opioids on her family to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin: “My step dad did them. He beat me and my mom. Put a gun to my head, mom and me,” said the young girl. “What did he want you all to do,” asked Manchin. “He wanted you to take drugs too, or he wanted your mom to take drugs, or was he just out of control?” “He wanted my mom to take drugs,” she replied. “She wouldn’t do it.” “And is he gone now? Is he out of your lives,” asked Manchin. “He shot himself because of it, after he killed my mom by shooting her up three times with OxyContin. He didn’t want a divorce. She did,” the girl replied. “How old was your mom,” asked Manchin. “Twenty,” said the girl. “I was five.”

JG: It’s very hard to lose the image of those young faces that we interviewed in West Virginia. And we found that so often.

The young boy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who dislocated his shoulder wrestling – gets surgery and gets prescribed OxyContin. A few months later, he’s playing football, hurts his other shoulder. Doesn’t need surgery, but he’s in a lot of pain, gets OxyContin. A year and half later he was dead from a heroin overdose.

That path from injury, unintended consequences of opioid prescription, to heroin, is extraordinarily common.

AS: Having been so engrossed in this project for quite a while now, do you feel like you understand the opioid epidemic, and does it seem to you like there’s a clear way forward?

JG: Any time you produce a program like this over such a long period of time you become a bit of a knowledgeable person – I won’t say expert – but a knowledgeable person. So, yes, I do feel like I really understand the details of the opioid epidemic.

I wish the show had ended with a, ‘Here’s how to fix this.’ That would have been ideal. We asked every person we interviewed, ‘What would you do if you were king for a day? How would you fix this problem?’ And nobody had a really solid answer to it.

I’ve said recently that if I had to pick one solution, I would find a single person and empower that person with all of the money and resources and personnel they needed to fix this problem. And then I would set that person’s hair on fire. And then I would say, ‘We’ll put the fire out when you solve the problem.’ Because if we don’t act like our hair is on fire, we are never going to solve the opioid epidemic.

AS: Is there something for the audience, in particular, that you hope they take away after watching this program?

JG: I think I’m left most with the images of family with a person missing. The Avi and Julie Israel family, the Jennifer Burke family, with their sons beautifully portrayed in family photos up until the time they both died at a very young age. And I’m left with the anguish that one feels when you’re talking to these parents – when you’re talking to Avi and Julie Israel, and you’re talking to Jennifer Burke. It’s just a powerful anguish that is hard to separate yourself from when you see what these parents have gone through – and, in both cases, created by an addiction that was caused by prescription opioid medicine.

Understanding the Opioid Epidemic airs on WNED TV: Wednesday, January 17 at 10 p.m.; Friday, January 19 at 1 a.m.; Saturday, January 20 at 5:30 p.m.

Visit the Understanding the Opioid Epidemic website for more information and resources for education and community engagement. You can watch the full program online following its premiere on January 17.

Follow WBFO's Avery Schneider on Twitter at @SAvery131.

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.