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Trish Tanner’s fight on opioid epidemic is personal

Monday, April 2, 2018

Trish Tanner’s fight on opioid epidemic is personal

photo: Trish Tanner holding graduation certification and standing with Matt Cornner of the Advisory Board







Trish Tanner and Matt Cornner,
who is with the Advisory Board,
at Tanner's graduation from the
Fellowship Program

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – Trish Tanner’s face lights up when she talks about her nephew Dustin Iverson.

Iverson, who served two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as a sergeant with the Mississippi National Guard, is clearly a source of tremendous pride. Tanner beams as she describes Iverson, calling him “compelling…caring…big-hearted with tons of friends.”

It’s been more than 1 ½ years since Iverson’s tragic death from an accidental drug overdose, but the pain is still raw for Tanner.

She shares sweet stories from Iverson’s childhood, such as when he painted the family dog green as a mischievous boy. She recalls how, even as an infant, Iverson wore military fatigues like his dad, who also served in the National Guard, including one tour by his side.

“The last time I saw Dustin was in 2015 at my mom’s 89th birthday party in Mississippi,” said Tanner, assistant vice president of corporate pharmacy at Ballad Health. “We joked that he and I were the official taste testers because we both hovered at the food table.”

A few years earlier, Iverson left the military and started a career as a land surveyor that would eventually relocate him to the small town of Cullman, Alabama. “As far as we knew, life was good for him,” Tanner said.
But then she received a fateful phone call that changed her family’s life -- and the focus of her life’s work.

“My sister called to tell me that Dustin had been found dead in his home,” Tanner said. “I remember the phone just went silent when she told me the news. Dustin was only 29 and her only son. I was stunned, his family was devastated, and his friends were at a loss. We all have so many unanswered questions.”

After Iverson’s death, the family learned that opioid drug overdoses were on the rise in Cullman.

“We were told that several others -- like eight to ten people -- under the age of 30 died of opioid drug overdoses in Cullman the same week that Dustin died,” Tanner said. “It was just shocking. Police believe it was a bad batch of drugs.”

Iverson’s untimely death transformed the opioid epidemic from a news headline into a very personal campaign for Tanner. “It’s no longer ‘the generic Opioid Epidemic,’” she said. “It’s the crisis next door and in our own families now. Dustin was important, his life made a difference, and his death has been a catalyst for change. His death deeply impacted those who remain.”

Tanner enrolled in the national Advisory Board Company’s Fellowship Program in July 2016, just a month before learning of her nephew’s death. As part of the intensive training program, Tanner was required to complete an in-depth project that would benefit her sponsoring company. “I’m not sure that I chose the topic as much as it chose me,” she said. “I researched the opioid crisis in our region. As Dustin’s aunt and as a pharmacist, I have a duty and a desire to bring about change now.”

Opiates, Tanner explained, are a class of natural, euphoria-producing and pain-relieving drugs originating from the poppy flower. Opioids – which include both the natural and synthetic versions -- include heroin, fentanyl and pain medications available legally with a prescription, such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine and morphine. They are all highly addictive and eventually transform the brain, making recovery even more challenging, she said.

In January, Tanner presented a poster on her research on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.  “I pulled together local information that showed a significant reduction in opioid prescribing rates at hospital emergency departments and in inpatient administration rates in Mountain States Health Alliance facilities,” she said. “This reduction is the result of the tremendous diligence and efforts of many providers and individuals committed to making a real change.”

Statistics show that Mountain States – now part of Ballad Health – reduced the number of inpatient opioid doses administered in its hospitals by more than 40 percent last year. Meanwhile, the system’s emergency department prescribing rates are 26 percent below the national average and, in 2017, trended 18 percent below its rates for 2016.

Ballad Health, which also includes the former Wellmont Health System, is now in the process of implementing these new practices at all of their 21 facilities. “We’ve done great work so far, but there is much more to do,” Tanner said. “Ballad Health is committed to addressing the healthcare needs of our community and addiction recovery is among our top priorities for Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.”

Tanner has now graduated from the 18-month Fellowship Program, which she credits with helping her better understand just how far reaching our region’s drug problem really is. “Opioid addictions touch so many lives in so many ways,” she said. “It affects the labor force, drug-dependent babies, and the number of children being put into foster care, to name just a few. It’s not only the addict who is affected.”

Because of her passion for improving the health of our region, Tanner has been asked to serve as chairperson for Ballad Health’s Opioid Taskforce. “This is very personal for me,” she said. “My family supports openly sharing Dustin’s story because too many people are hurting from the opioid crisis. This is a way for us to redeem what has been lost.”

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