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Solace Foundation Brings Hope For Hopeless In Face Of Opioid Addiction, Overdose

This Orange County mother has been saving lives since her son died of a heroin overdose.

Ben Dunkle was 20 years old when he overdosed on heroin, leaving his family in indescribable pain. Mother Aimee Dunkle found herself without a son, and now spends Saturdays with her Solace Foundation helping the children of others recognize the signs and symptoms of heroin overdose and providing life-saving measures in the form of Naloxone.

Ben, is more than a statistic found in the "Opioid Overdose and Death in Orange County" report released Tuesday by the Orange County Health Care Agency. He is Aimee Dunkle's reason.

Reading between the lines of the technical report, one will find Orange County nonprofits such as The Solace Foundation and the Orange County Needle Exchange Program. Both bridge the gap between opioid abuse and overdose, providing empathy for those in need.

According to OCHA, the rate of opioid-related emergency department visits has more than doubled since 2005.

"Drug overdose deaths involving prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1999 which is alarming," said Chairwoman Michelle Steel, Second District supervisor. "There must be a community effort of individuals, private and nonprofit organizations, and the government to reduce the number of people dying in this completely preventable manner."

Orange County's Solace Foundation founder and organizer, Amiee Dunkle, a Rancho Santa Margarita resident, has been the driving factor behind distributing and educating about Naloxone, a potentially life-saving countermeasure for opioid overdose.

To her, the Solace Foundation has a deeper meaning: its very name is an acronym for "Surviving Our Loss with Awareness, Compassion and Empathy."

Education and access to the life-saving drug is at a cornerstone of the Solace Foundation's mission. She educates others every Saturday during the Orange County Needle Exchange Program in Santa Ana, bringing food, water and compassion to those who desperately need it.

According to Dunkle, up to 70 people can be trained for proper delivery of the life-saving drug in two and a half hours.

"For two years, I have hustled for money to buy Naloxone, and now the HCA is giving the Solace Foundation a grant of 6,218 doses of Narcan, in the form of 3,109 kits," Dunkle said, noting that she expects the arrival of the doses by the end of this month.

In the meantime, the Solace Foundation is working with local first responder groups. On Aug. 3, the foundation organized Naloxone training for all public safety personnel at Chapman University.

The Chapman training was dedicated to the memory of Ethan Berkowitz, who graduated from Chapman University in 2012.

"All public safety personnel at Chapman University will soon be carrying Naloxone," Dunkle said, over Facebook. "Thank you Chapman University for setting the bar."

While Naloxone won't solve opioid abuse, it save Orange County lives and prevents future overdoses, said Board of Supervisors Chair Andrew Do, First District.

"As a former prosecutor, I have seen firsthand what opioid abuse can do to a family and a community," Do said. "The Board of Supervisors has taken an active step in preventing fatal overdoses by securing a grant to provide 6,218 doses of Naloxone in Orange County.

In Orange County, the statistics of overdose and death from opioid use are grim.

  • Between 2011 and 2015, there were 7,457 opioid overdose/abuse cases treated in Orange County emergency departments (ED)

  • The rate of opioid-related ED visits has increased 141 percent since 2005 to 1,769 cases in 2015.

  • Residents between the ages of 18 to 24 and 25 to 34 years were most likely to visit the ED for an opioid overdose.

  • Seven of every 10 drug overdose death investigated by the OCSD during this five-year period involved opioids, for an average of 241 opioid-related overdose deaths each year.

  • Males were nearly two times more likely than females to overdose and/or die from an opioid-related incident, and residents between the ages of 45 to 54 years had the highest opioid overdose death rates.

  • Geographically, cities along the coastal and southern regions of Orange County. Of the cities that tended to have higher rates of ED visits and death than other cities: Laguna Beach, Laguna Woods, Danta Point, Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach.

"Opioid abuse has serious consequences that impact emergency department productivity, criminal justice involvement, and health care expenses," said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, Third District. "This report highlights the immediate need to address what is becoming a major public safety and quality of life issue in Orange County."

Making the life-saving Naloxone -- or Narcan, in its nasal form -- available to those who really need it is the goal of the Solace Foundation.

"Hundreds of (overdose) cases have been reversed since we started with OCNEP in February of 2016," Dunkle said. "We keep track of who we train to recognize symptoms of overdose, what to do after, and guidelines are given ... Every Saturday, we they come back and report any reversals."

For the Solace Foundation, there are two pictures of what they are learning: How what they are doing is affecting the people who need their help, and what still needs to be done.

"When I'm down there on a Saturday, I'm everyone's mother," Dunkle said. "These people have been shunned by society, they are treated with no compassion, you engage, you give them Naloxone, bottles of water, snacks, and engage with them as people. These are some of the most vulnerable members of our society."

Dunkle often partners with other mothers who have lost their children to opioid overdose.

"We don't have our children anymore and we can help other people's children," she said. "They've reached the end of the road."

According to the OC Department of Public Health, it is encouraging that the death rate due to opioid overdose has remained relatively level over this time period. Orange County has lower opioid mortality rates compared to other states and the nation, health officials say.

HCA offers a variety of public education, prevention, outreach and treatment services aimed at reducing the misuse and abuse of drugs and alcohol among residents. In addition, the Orange County Alcohol and Drug Advisory Board is developing an Opioid Strategic Plan that will identify individual and community needs in Orange County specific to opioids, as well as effective strategies to address them.

"Seeing the rate of opioid-related emergency department visits nearly double in the last 12 years is troubling, to say the least," said Supervisor Shawn Nelson, Fourth District. "This illustrates that opioid abuse is climbing to epidemic rates, not only in Orange County, but regionally."

And for The Solace Foundation, time is too precious to wait.

On Saturday, Aug. 5, the group gathered to distribute Naloxone in loving memory of Jeff Cullen, yet another victim of opioid overdose. In Huntington Beach, there is a bench named in honor of one who left the world too soon.

"Even one opioid overdose in Orange County is too many," said Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, Fifth District. "It's particularly concerning to me that the highest rates of emergency department visits related to opioid abuse occurred in southern and coastal cities in the Fifth District. Armed with the knowledge provided by this in-depth report, we must collaborate to eradicate opioid abuse in our community."

For the Solace Foundation, every bottle of Naloxone or dose of Narcan comes with a possibility of a future that might exist, an overdose that might be avoided.

"This is a gift from Ben," Dunkle said. "If not for Ben, I would not be here, helping so many others."

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