It’s Sunday and I am on a rare venture out of the house for an important interview. Had you asked me a year ago to think of a situation where the church parking lots here in the heart of the Bible Belt would be empty on Sunday mornings I would have struggled to come up with a scenario that wasn’t cataclysmic. On a day that many of us used to take the family out for a meal the restaurants sit vacant too. Some have signs offering online ordering and delivery but there is little activity. History is unfolding as a virulent microbe brings our culture to a screeching halt.
I am meeting Ryan Kaufman, one of the founders of a group called the South Carolina HARM Reduction Coalition who take the battle against the Opioid Epidemic out to the front lines. These folks seek out and counsel with active addicts, working through any network they can to find those who are most vulnerable.
Kaufman owns a restaurant by Shem Creek and has created a fully functional kitchen at the curb. An awning is set up and sandwich board lists a dozen meals priced at $10 for take-away. While Kaufman takes orders and two others cook I sit across a cooler with my notepad.
“We carry everything out in the morning and back in at night,” Kaufman said. “Fifty-five employees worked here and I am determined that they have a place to return to when we get through this.”
A few chairs are set up on opposite sides of the small lawn to allow people waiting for their orders to keep their distance; others arrive on bicycles and sit alongside the curb as they wait.
Kaufman isn’t the type one would expect to be heavily involved on the front lines of the Opioid Crisis. “I grew up in a good family in one of the best towns in the world – right here off Rifle Range Road. We never wanted for anything – we have the best of everything right here. We had great schools and education, we could be involved in any sport you can think of, the rivers, the ocean, family vacations – we had it all.”
Thirty-four-year-old Kaufman had a sister named Paige who was three and a half years his junior. They grew up very close, sharing most everything in life. Paige graduated with top honors and had scholarships at College of Charleston, but the drug scene got a grip on her and she wasn’t able to complete her freshman year. Her addiction progressed quickly, and before long she was in and out of the ‘rehab scene.’
“Mom and Dad sent her to countless rehabs,” Kaufman said. “They sent her to expensive rehabs, they sent her to inexpensive rehabs, they sent her to rehabs all over the country. But she always ended up relapsing. Dad had terrible anxiety that developed from never knowing when the dreaded phone call was going to announce tragedy and didn’t have a good night of sleep for years. But all through this time Paige showed up at family functions and tried hard to be the glue that kept the family together. But in 2016 it seemed she finally got it. She put together a year and a half sober and seemed happy – she had a boyfriend that she loved and they were going to make a life together.”
“One day as I was walking up to my parents front door ambulances and fire-trucks came racing up the street, screeching to a stop in front of their house,” Kaufman said. “Dad showed up to the front door white as a ghost. I knew right away what it was.”
“Dad had been performing CPR on Paige for 20 minutes as he waited for the ambulances to arrive,” Kaufman said. “They stabilized her, but within a couple of days complications from her overdose took her life on Aug. 18, 2017.”
After catching his voice, Kaufman continued, “I wondered if my experimenting with partying when I was younger contributed to her addiction. I wondered if I had hugged her more sincerely the day before if that could have changed something – all kinds of thoughts go through your mind. As far as we knew she hadn’t used anything for a year and a half and there was nothing to indicate that she was going to do it again – what signs did I miss? A brother is supposed to protect his little sister, where did I go wrong?”
“But when I found out that there was a drug called Narcan that could have reversed the effects of the opiate and saved her life I was just angry that it wasn’t available for people in our situation. It is difficult having someone suffering with addiction in your life – there are all kinds of inconveniences. But being dead is permanent. I would 1,000 times rather she was alive today and driving me crazy than dead. She’s gone for good, and if we had had Narcan we could have given her a chance to live,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman and two others started HARM Reduction in December of 2017, catching their stride in 2018. The members and volunteers spend their time distributing kits containing things to help those in active addiction avoid collateral disease such as Hepatitis and AIDS and safely dispose of the hypodermic needles they use. But mostly they work to connect with those in need.
“It takes time someone in that situation to trust you, but when they realize we have no judgment they will start to call us when they have questions or are facing life problems. From those relationships we have found that people are 5 times more likely to seek treatment than if they don’t know who to reach out to. Two-hundred overdoses have reportedly been reversed with Narcan that we have distributed, and we are sure that only a small fraction of the total cases have been reported,” Kaufman said.
“When I become aware of an employee that is struggling we work hard to intervene and get them help if they are willing to accept it. Some make it and go on to establish careers and raise families, and when they call you back to thank you it makes all the heartache and effort worthwhile. Many others don’t make it, but what can you do but to pick back up and keep trying?”
“Right now is a crucial time. I am getting word of numerous overdoses as people are alone and scared with this pandemic. So many people who have found long-term sobriety rely on daily meetings to help them maintain it, but those meetings are not taking place now. Some of those meetings are taking place online, but that isn’t the same. There isn’t anywhere for someone who is struggling to walk into if they are seeking help. This is a big problem and I’m afraid it’s also a deadly epidemic flaring up on top of everything else going on,” Kaufman said.
Along with the meals Kaufman is allowed to serve beer for take-away; the bottles of beer are put in brown bags. A middle-aged man and wife sitting on bicycles in the street waiting for their food open their beers and are drinking them out of the brown bags as they wait. An elderly man is sitting with his wife in the chairs across the lawn doing the same thing. A Mount Pleasant police officer on a bicycle comes by and warns Kaufman that tickets and fines can be issued – people have to take the beer home to private property to drink it. Kaufman and the patrons quickly comply without complaint or argument. About five minutes later the officer returns on his bicycle and almost apologetically says that Town Hall has insisted that he issue a warning – “no fines or tickets, just a warning.”
Kaufman again complies and the officer finally peddles off toward Shem Creek. No one knows how to act right now or what is appropriate or inappropriate – but we are all trying. Let’s be attuned to what is most important and reach out to those we know that are vulnerable in this isolation. As this drags on it is likely to become more difficult for everyone, and you never know when a well-timed phone call may save a life. Lets all summon our resolve to do what we can to emerge from this crisis stronger than ever.
HARM Reduction volunteers will reach out and deliver safety kits to people who need them during this time – you can reach their hotline at 843-906-4846. As the author of this series, I have obtained a list of local online 12-step meetings and outreach people that I will share if you contact me at the email address below.
This article series, written the first and third week of each month, is meant to educate the community about addiction in general and the Opioid Crisis in specific that is affecting communities nationwide. We are hopeful that this series will make a difference. When appropriate the names will be changed of those the articles feature. The author welcomes inquiries or shared experiences, and can be reached at David@PhoenixSC.org.