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“I should be dead.”

Napa County resident Edward Tcheleshev doesn’t mince words when discussing his battle with addiction. He graduated at the top of his class at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and went on to work for a Fortune 500 company, but no one knew he was addicted to opioids.

Tcheleshev shared his story during the Napa Opioid Safety Coalition’s town hall meeting on Saturday morning at Napa’s CrossWalk Community Church. He told a crowd of nearly 150 attendees how a star student-athlete devolved into an opioid addict, and he explained how he was able to hide his personal struggles from the people most important in his life.

“It was like I had two lives,’ Tcheleshev said. “I had one part of me trying to hide this (addiction) and the other side trying to support it. I was in about a $10,000 a month habit.”

For Tcheleshev, his introduction to opioids started innocently enough. He was prescribed the narcotic Percocet to relieve pain from an injury he suffered on the school rowing team in college. However, the pills not only took his pain away, but also created a sense of euphoria that helped lessen the stresses of everyday life. He sought prescriptions from multiple doctors to maintain his habit, and eventually turned to heroin because it was cheaper.

Today, Tcheleshev is three years sober and has found a new appreciation for his life and family. He practices yoga and describes himself as an “outspoken” advocate for mental health and people in addiction recovery.

Napa Opioid Safety Coalition’s town hall was designed to create community awareness and a dialogue about the opioid epidemic in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 130 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose. That’s nearly 50,000 people each year, and Napa County residents are not strangers to opioid abuse. According to the California Department of Public Health, there were 4 deaths caused by opioid overdose in 2017, as well as 13 emergency room visits and 19 hospitalizations in Napa County.

Dr. Ninad Athale, a family physician and addiction specialist at OLE Health in Napa County, said the dangers of opioids have been known for hundreds of years. Opioids are drugs that with a chemical compound resembling opium, an organic substance used to reduce pain. Opioids, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, are commonly prescribed by doctors to treat pain. It’s when people do not adhere to their doctor’s instructions, either taking a larger dose or using the drug longer than directed, an addiction can develop.

During his presentation at the town hall meeting, Athale showed an image of a front page of the Washington Post in 1920. The headline across the top of the newspaper was about opioid drug abuse.

Athale said the opioid epidemic has surged in the past 40 years because there are more opioid drugs that doctors can prescribe to help clients deal with and manage pain. He said part of resolving the opioid epidemic is to educate the medical community and help patients find non-addictive methods for dealing with pain that isn’t the result of cancer or an end-of-life condition.

Napa County Health Officer and Public Health Director Dr. Karen Relucio said events such as Saturday’s town hall are important because it raises awareness and helps residents understand the dangers that may be lurking in their medicine cabinets.

She advocated for safe storage methods for prescription opioids and showcased products, such as pill bottles with combination locks to prevent people from getting into pill bottles who aren’t supposed to, including children and house guests. Tcheleshev said he used to take pills out of prescription bottles he found in medicine cabinets while visiting friends’ homes.

Relucio suggested keeping prescription drugs in a locked safe instead of leaving them exposed in the home.

Safe drug disposal is also an important part of fighting the opioid crisis, according to Napa County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Rick Greenberg, who heads up the county’s narcotics division at the Napa Special Investigation Bureau. He said the county collected 1,500 pounds of medications during the county’s Drug Take Back Day in 2018. The annual event is traditionally held on the last Saturday of October, but Greenberg said residents can bring their prescription and over-the-counter medication to the Sheriff’s office for disposal during regular office hours throughout the year.

Following the presentations, the crowd was divided into groups to learn about naloxone, a drug that can treat narcotic overdoses in an emergency. Pharmaceutical students from Touro University California, led by instructor and pharmacist Dr. Mohamed Jalloh, explained how to use the drug Narcan, a nasal spray form of naloxone, on a person who appears unconscious as result of an opioid overdose. Attendees were each given a box of Narcan to take home, but Dr. Jalloh said he hopes no one needs to use it.

The event also included a resource fair featuring local agencies who offer health services as well as additional recovery services.

Napa County Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht, a member of the Napa Opioid Safety Coalition, said the coalition hopes to host more events like this to bring the opioid epidemic to the forefront of people’s minds. He said sharing personal stories is a way to help people understand how widespread the opioid problem is. The more people talk about it, the sooner a solution can be found, he said.

“This is about communication. You know I’ve got five kids, and one of them got involved with drugs and alcohol,” he said. “It was driving us crazy. We were pulling our hair out trying to help her stay out of that, and eventually I gathered the family around, and we got her into a 28-day program. That started her on a good path, and now it’s been a good path for 15 years.”

Wagenknecht said what was most surprising is that as he shared his family’s situation, he learned that his brother and his nephew had also struggled with drug addiction and had gone through recovery programs.

“I’m hearing this, and I thought ‘darn, I love both of these people. I would have wanted to have been a part of their recovery.’ There needs to be communication. And that was just within one family. We have the whole community, and we need to be better about communication. (The opioid crisis in Napa County) is a hidden secret, and we can’t solve it if it remains hidden. We’ve got to get it out in the open and deal with it. … We need to let the sunshine in. We need to let everyone know what’s going on.”

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