For 33 years, Daryl Tandy (not his real name) was decimated, debilitated and controlled by heroin. His struggle was exacerbated by jail sentences, financial struggles, and a lack of public health outreach or intervention options.
If it had not been for the strength of values and faith instilled by his late mother, Tandy, who is now four years clean, said he would still be hooked on heroin.
“People really don’t have a complete understanding of the wreckage and aftermath – it’s a disease and an epidemic that kills, steals and destroys,” said Tandy, who attends daily Narcotics Anonymous sessions.
“Some people want help and have the desire to stop, but it’s hard and they don’t know how – all they know is they need the drug or they will be sick,” Tandy said.
Enter Dr. Kanika Turner.
The 33-year-old doctor is answering the call for a community of African Americans who have been poisoned by heroin for about a half-century. A practicing and attending physician at Family Care Health Center, she is going straight to the most vulnerable neighborhoods with treatment, resources and training.
“I don’t want to see Black people die from this because the treatment is available,” said Dr. Turner, asserting that the abuse of heroin in African American communities has largely been ignored and criminalized.
“What I hear a lot of when I go into the community is that it wasn’t a problem until it hit the White community,” she said.
Dr. Turner has designed a simple approach that is easy to remember and share: 1. Acknowledge 2. Apologize 3. Activate.
“We need to acknowledge that there has been a disparity in how heroin was handled in the Black community vs. the white community and we need to apologize and start treating people,” she said.
“I need to go all over the African-American community,” said Dr. Turner, MD, MPH, who currently runs radio ads to offer her services to churches and community organizations. She also targets schools and women’s shelters.
“I want to get to teens before they get to the point of use,” Dr. Turner said.
According to information from The Recovery Village, a drug and substance abuse resource center with locations around Missouri, some substances in opioids unnaturally block the brain from receiving certain numbing signals, which can permanently alter the way a teen’s brain works. Because the young brain is still growing rapidly, it is especially susceptible to change.
While research has shown boys are more likely to abuse drugs than girls, Turner is concerned with women because they sometimes trade sex for drugs and conceive children while abusing heroin.
Turner said help is available even if active users don’t have insurance. Her approach is a medicine-first model, though she provides access to and trains people how to administer Narcan, a reversal drug for people overdosing.
“My thing is getting people into treatment, so they don’t overdose,” she said adding that treatment works.
Tandy can attest to that.
“My life has changed drastically for the better,” he said. “My thinking is different, my appearance is better and my relationship with my kids is better.’
Turner emphasized the importance of familial support systems and encourages loved ones to attend treatment sessions with their family members suffering from addiction.
When family members attend sessions, they get a first-hand look at how the treatment works and can act as a reinforcement agent when those recovering return to their own environment.
Along with practicing family and addiction medicine, Turner is faculty at St. Louis University Department of Family and Community Medicine. She graduated from St. Louis University’s School of Medicine and School of Public Health in 2014. She is also a consulting physician to the Missouri Opioid State Targeted Response team.
The Florissant dweller is a St. Louis native, whose parents grew up in north St. Louis.
For help, she can be reached at (314) 353-5190.
*Darryl Tandy is a fictitious name for the former heroin user who was interviewed for this story.