KEYSER - “Stay in the fight until the miracle happens.”
This was the piece of advice Keyser High School principal Mike Lewis offered the audience Thursday evening as he brought to a close the Substance Abuse Town Hall meeting.

By Liz Beavers
Tribune Managing Editor
KEYSER - “Stay in the fight until the miracle happens.”
This was the piece of advice Keyser High School principal Mike Lewis offered the audience Thursday evening as he brought to a close the Substance Abuse Town Hall meeting.
The meeting, co-sponsored by Keyser High and the Mineral County Healthy Lifestyles Coalition, was held as a means of sharing information on the current opioid epidemic. Ironically, it occurred on the evening of the day that President Trump had declared the epidemic a public health emergency, and Sen. Joe Manchin, who had originally planned to be in Keyser Thursday night, was in attendance at the White House.
Since he couldn’t make it back to Keyser in time, Manchin Skyped into the meeting, and talked about West Virginia’s unfortunate role in the national drug epidemic.
Calling West Virginia “ground zero,” he noted that the Mountain State has “more drug-related deaths per capita than any other state.”
Part of the problem, he said, is that many people don’t want to admit they or a loved one have fallen victim to addiction.
“It’s a silent killer,” he said, praising those who hosted Thursday night’s meeting and calling it an important first step toward openly talking about the problem and what can be done to attack it.
The Senator talked briefly about a program he has proposed, called “Lifeboat,” in which big pharmacies would be required to pay “one penny per milligram” of opioids they produce.
“That one penny would raise about $1.5-$2 million a year” that could be used to fight the addiction crisis, he said.
“Addiction is an illness and we need a treatment,” he said. “We don’t have the treatment facilities we need.”
Several other speakers kept the crowd riveted during the meeting with their stories of how they had been affected by the current drug epidemic - either through working with EMS and law enforcement or as an addict.
Mineral County medical examiner Chris Guynn spoke about working with overdose patients as both an EMS provider and medical examiner, noting that “in West Virginia, there’s one death every ten hours due to an opioid overdose.”
Of those deaths, Cabell, Kanawha and Berkeley counties account for 50 percent.
Guynn shared a list of the signs to look for if an overdose is suspected, including tiny pupils, the person is not moving and breathing very shallowly or not at all.
Retired Maryland State Police major Jim Pyles, currently serving as director of safety and security with the Maryland Department of Health and Hygiene, spoke about his days working with addicts as an officer and administrator.
Ironically, he told the crowd addiction is a problem that will never be “arrested away.” Instead, he suggested a “toolbox” of alternatives, including methadone, buprenorphine or suboxone and vivitrol to help the recovering addict.
He also talked about narcan, and counteracted those critics who ask why even revive someone who “obviously” wants to die with the comment, “That’s someone’s mom, someone’s dad, someone’s aunt or someone’s uncle.”
One drug, however, fentanyl, has “changed everything” in terms of addiction, he said. It does not react to narcan or other attempts at reviving a person who has overdosed.
“There is no narcan, there is no God, that’s going to bring you back from fentanyl,” he said.
Pyles ended his comments with hope, however, saying if groups like those who gathered at KHS Thursday night continue to work together, then “one life, one day, we will change West Virginia.”
Rick Hamilton, a recovering addict from Allegany County who is currently working as an addictions counselor in Frederick, Maryland, closed the program by telling his story of addiction, relapse, and finally, recovery.
Wanting to put a face on the stigma of being an addict, he opened by telling the crowd, “I am a drug addict. But I’m also a son, a father, an employee. … I have a story and I’m one of many.”
Hamilton’s addiction began when he tore his hamstring while playing football with the Allegany High School Campers and was prescribed a painkiller.
He said he soon began to realize that painkiller was helping him feel better about himself.
“I fell in love with the feeling. I could talk to the girls a little easier.  But little did I know that moment in time would affect the rest of my life,” he said.
“I went through my medicine, and then I went through my father’s,” he said. “I had grandparents who were on pain medication so I went through that.”
Soon his habit turned into “handfuls of percocet.’
Hamilton said went through periods of getting clean, but he would soon relapse, and was arrested and sentenced to jail several times. Even when he found out he was about to become a father, he thought that would be his turning point, but he continued to relapse.
He noted that his intentions to stay clean were always honest.
“I meant every word I said. I was being truthful. I wanted a better life and I wanted to be a better father,” he said.
Each time, however, he kept falling in with the same crowd of users, and returned to his old life.
Finally, a judge agreed to place Hamilton in a long-term recovery facility, and that was the key to his success. He has now been three years sober, and was able to go back to school to work on earning a degree.
“I just want to say, there is hope. I want people to leave here tonight with hope,” he said.
The meeting was hosted by Keyser High School and the Mineral County Healthy Lifestyles Coaltiion, and KHS principal Mike Lewis served as the moderator for the program.
Sen. Manchin, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, the Mineral County Board of Education, Mineral County Sheriff’s Department and Keyser High School worked together to present the program, with local sponsors being the Mineral County Health Department, Mineral Daily News Tribune, Microtel Inn & Suites, ONTRACK, Reed’s Drug Store and Western Maryland Health System.