For Ridgefield resident Stephen Saloom, a chance encounter at Trader Joe’s last Saturday morning brought the opiate crisis home in a way that working in public policy reform across the country never did.

Saloom mentioned to the cashier he would be involved in a town forum about opiate abuse later that day — Oct. 28 — and found out he was speaking to a woman who had been directly affected by the ongoing epidemic.

“She said, ‘That’s good that you’re doing that,’” he recalled to a room of about 45 people in the Ridgefield Library.

The cashier, a graduate of Ridgefield High School’s Class of 2006, told Saloom she had known 10 people who died of opiate abuse.

“I wouldn’t think that there were 100 people at RHS who were abusing opioids,” Saloom told the crowd. “But after hearing that today, I would.”

Personal loss

Saloom was one of three speakers residents heard from during the two-hour panel discussion that focused on creating strategies for the town to use in the fight against opiate addiction.

Carina Borgia-Drake, a Ridgefield resident and an oncology nurse, also shared a story of loss.

She told the room about her childhood friend, Michael, who died from a heroin overdose in June. He was 35 years old.

“If you asked 20 kids, who grew up in Brooklyn like a family, who of us would die of a heroin overdose and be part of this national narrative, unanimous 20 kids — including himself — would have said ‘never Michael,’” Borgia-Drake said.

As kids, Michael would pick dandelions for her while they hung out during the summer, Borgia-Drake recalled.

After an injury, Michael was prescribed painkillers. He fell into an addiction, and later started using heroin.

He managed to get clean for a while. He joined the carpenters’ union after a period of being out of work.

“He told me, ‘I’ve got this,’” she recalled.

“It was that fentanyl-laced tranquilizer — final dose — that ended his life,” she said. “June 28th this summer. And I’ll never replace that loss that I have.”

Lawsuit

“Up until the late 1990s, doctors believed that opioids should only be prescribed in limited circumstances” said attorney Devin Hartley, the panel’s first speaker.

Those limited circumstances included end-of-life palliative care, and patients recovering from major surgery, he said.

But then came a major shift in policy.

Hartley said drug manufacturers convinced key doctors within the medical community to loosen restrictions on when opiate painkillers should be prescribed.

“The drug manufacturers managed to convince doctors that these opioids could be prescribed for minor pains — headaches, backaches, and chronic long-term pain,” he explained.

Unable to refill their prescriptions indefinitely, patients who become addicted to the painkillers sometimes turn to a cheaper, and far more dangerous, alternative: heroin.

Connecticut towns are being “ravaged” by opioid addiction, Hartley said, but the crisis “didn’t come about by accident.”

A lawyer with Drubner, Hartley & Hellman, Hartley serves as a co-counsel in a suit brought by the city of Waterbury against several major pharmaceutical companies.

The suit claims pharmaceutical companies misled consumers about the safety and long-term consequences of continued opiate use.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi told The Press that Ridgefield would not be joining the suit.

“While I am in support of a litigation effort, at the same time, we’re looking at a long-term suit,” said Marconi.

‘Not enough beds’

“I have a cousin who needed treatment,” said resident Scott Preston during the public portion of the forum.

He explained that finding a treatment facility with an opening has been difficult.

“Do we have any beds in Ridgefield?” Preston asked.

“No,” said Marconi.

He explained that even with private rehab facilities that cost as much as $30,000 for a 30-day program, many of those admitted end up relapsing.

Parents will drain retirement savings, or mortgage the equity in their home, to afford to send a son or daughter to rehab several times over, Marconi said.

But despite the high cost, Marconi said, there simply are “not enough beds” to treat everyone.

Helping hand

The first selectman held up an applicator for the anti-overdose drug Narcan — a device about the size and shape of a matchbox.

The applicators are commonly available, and can be administered without medical training. Marconi likened it to an EpiPen for opiate overdoses.

People seem to be under the impression that they would be able to inject themselves with the applicator if they realized they were overdosing, Marconi said.

He explained that Narcan applicators are often found at the scenes of overdose victims, who couldn’t reach the drug in time as they fell into unconsciousness.

Marconi also pointed out that at that very moment, the police were conducting an anonymous drug take-back program at Rite Aid.

The sheer number of pills in circulation gives some idea of the scope of the problem.

“We collect about 500 pounds of pills a year,” Marconi told the audience.

“The age can run from 19 years old right up to 60 or 65 years old,” he said of addiction. “It does not discriminate.”