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One Question Inspired This Woman To Survive And Fight King County's Heroin Epidemic

Heroin deaths have reached a record number in King County. More than 150 people died of overdoses in 2014.

One woman could’ve been part of that statistic. Ten years ago, Thea Oliphant-Wells was homeless and addicted to heroin.

Oliphant-Wells is 38 years old. She doesn’t mind giving her age because she feels lucky to have survived. She has buried and lost some friends to heroin. Today, she’s no longer using.

Instead, she helps those who are at the Seattle Needle Exchange program where people who inject drugs can turn in their used needles and get new ones and other tools to help reduce the spread of HIV and other blood-borne infections.

At one time, Oliphant-Wells was a client of the program. She turned to heroin when she was a teenager to deal with a childhood trauma. Then at 17 her first love tried to kill himself. She blamed herself for that.

“Opiates are pain killers; they not only kill physical pain but they certainly do help to relieve emotional and psychic pain as well,” she said. “It’s not a great tool, but we do what works when we’re trying to survive in life.”

Oliphant-Wells remembers those days. It was a hard and lonely life. “It’s always, 'Well, I better get out there and make sure that I have heroin for tomorrow, heroin for tonight,'” she said. “It’s this never-ending battle so it’s a lot of work.”

Those days are behind her. Oliphant-Wells is now a social worker at the needle exchange. She lets clients know she’s been where they are. She understands the feeling of shame and the sense that society is turning its back on them.

But she also remembers the people along the way who reached out to her: the nurse at Swedish Hospital who went out of her way to help her, the social worker at the needle exchange who saw her not as an addict but as a person.

“She asked, if I was able to treat my PTSD and find a way to stop using heroin, what would I want to do with my life?”

Oliphant-Wells said it had been so long since anyone asked about her goals, her dreams. That also got her attention because people were always telling her what to do.

“It was very important to know that someone saw me as someone who was capable of doing something else, because I didn’t see myself that way,” she said.

That question motivated her to finish high school. She went on to earn a master’s degree in social work at the University of Washington.

Heroin addiction in King County has reached epidemic proportions. There are more people entering detox for heroin than there are for alcohol.

According to a county report, substance abuse is both a cause and a result of homelessness. Treatment centers lack capacity -- there are at least 150 people on wait lists.

Local leaders are now taking action. Last month, King County Executive Dow Constantine and city officials convened a task force to find ways to expand treatment.

Constantine said many end up getting treatment in hospitals or in jail — settings that are not ideal and usually more expensive.

For now people on the front lines like Oliphant-Wells are doing their best to connect clients to the help they need. In her recovery, she was able to tap into housing, food stamps, general assistance — services that have helped keep her stable.

Oliphant-Wells said one thing that will always be in need is compassion. “You can give someone this evidence-based treatment,” she said, “but if you treat them badly, well, you do it, but it’s not going to take.”

She said it’s important to have places for people to go where they feel safe and feel treated with respect, whether or not they stop using heroin. That’s when they need community support the most.

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