Health Care

Akron Children’s Addresses Substance Abuse with New Program

AKRON, Ohio – With philanthropic support, Akron Children’s Hospital has created a new program to join other efforts in the community addressing the high toll of substance abuse disorders.

“With the second highest rate of overdose deaths in the country, Ohio is at the epicenter of the nation’s opioid epidemic,” said Akron Children’s President Grace Wakulchik. “Solving this problem will not be easy and will require a multi-disciplinary effort. As a leader in pediatric care, we felt the need to be more strategic in our services – with the ultimate goal of preventing today’s children and teens from becoming  the next generation of adults struggling with lifelong addiction.”

In its first phase, Akron Children’s Addiction Services Program will focus on education, prevention, screening, care coordination, community outreach, and referral, with medically-assisted treatment and outpatient care added as the program grows.

“Substance abuse, including the opioid crisis that we have all been watching unfold, is a complex societal problem and, contrary to what some people may think, it is a pediatric problem,” said Dr. Sarah Friebert, who has been instrumental in creating the new program.

Risky behavior in teens, such as drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, can have long-term consequences as lower drug initiation age is strongly correlated with later drug and alcohol abuse and dependence.

And while heroin is not commonly used among high school students, the rate of use increases significantly among those ages 18 to 25.

In creating the Addiction Services Program, a major goal for Friebert, who is the founder and medical director of Akron Children’s Haslinger Center Pediatric Palliative Care Center, is to remove the stigma surrounding addiction.

“Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease,” she said. “If people could choose, they would not want to live this way.”

The first major gift of $300,000 to create the program came from Brian Malone and Lea Heidman, who lost their daughter, Alyssa, to a drug overdose.

Alyssa’s story is all too familiar in the nation’s opioid epidemic. As a teen growing up in Medina, she was prescribed opioids after several surgeries, and having a history of depression only increased her risk. Despite the love and support of her family and access to top-notch medical care, she could not overcome her addiction and eventually succumbed to it in 2015 at age 21.

The gift came from the family’s personal funds as well as the foundation they created in their daughter’s memory, “Fighting for Alyssa.”

The program is also funded, in part, by a $250,000 donation from FedEx Custom Critical. Other significant contributions have come from Marci Matthews, Harvey and Kim Nelson, Friends of Akron Children’s Hospital, Bob and Regina Cooper, and Don Sitts.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.