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Raising opioid awareness

The people fighting the opioid crisis in Southern Oregon are often nurses, legislators and law enforcement. But a trio of St. Mary’s students are joining the effort with an opioid-awareness event they’re staging in Medford Thursday evening.

Along with AP courses and college applications, Sophia Pastrano, Gabi Castillo and Leah Sternenberg have been juggling the final steps to organize their Opioid Awareness Night. The free community event will provide dinner along with multifaceted information about opioids and addiction from a variety of experts.

“We’ve put a lot of hard work into this,” said Pastrano. “We’ve definitely come out of this a whole lot more aware.”

The event, which will kick off at 5 p.m. at the Smullin Health Education Center, 2825 E. Barnett Road, Medford, will include personal testimony from a formerly addicted woman in recovery, a breakdown of the physiological processes involved in addiction, and ample time for questions. Dinner will be provided by Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center.

It’s likely not a coincidence that all three young women have at least one parent who’s a physician, or that each is interested in pursuing a science- or health care-related career.

Pastrano became interested in opioids when she was searching for a junior project topic.

The project involves a thesis paper and a presentation — but even after she had completed those, Pastrano wanted to pursue the topic further.

Her friends Castillo and Sternenberg, meanwhile, were also learning about the impacts of drug addiction, through volunteer work and a job shadow with Dr. Kerri Hecox from La Clinica.

At first, the trio thought they might organize an awareness week at their school: posters, a talk in their library at the most.

Their connections to local health care professionals, however, helped them push the event beyond school walls and into a community grappling with the daily implications of opioid addiction.

More Americans die from overdoses than car wrecks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Jackson County saw a sudden spike in deadly opioid overdoses in the beginning of 2018. Jackson County Public Health reported another local overdose spike in mid-September.

Karey Westbrook, a registered nurse at Asante, is part of the hospital’s “pain team,” focused on assessing opioid prescribing practices and educating health care providers. She played a key role in helping the Opioid Awareness Night come together.

Pastrano’s father, a radiologist at Asante, approached Westbrook when his daughter was looking for more information about opioids to organize an event after her junior project.

“I was very excited that they wanted to do something,” Westbrook said. “(Young people) are potentially receiving prescriptions for opioids. They’re at a huge risk, and it’s important they understand the truth and the current evidence so they are informed about the decisions they make in their lives.”

The girls have reached out to their peers, using social media to spread the word. They also reached well beyond, however, leaving fliers at doctors’ offices and even paying for a radio commercial with the help of Asante.

“It’s kind of amazing to look back at the evolution of this project,” said Sternenberg, “because just back in June we were still thinking about just having a little convention in the library, and now it’s a communitywide event with over 100 people involved.”

As seriously as the students take the issue, they’re not overly worried about the takeaways. In their minds, any information people gain about opioid addiction is meaningful progress.

“Knowledge is power,” Pastrano said. “And if we’re doing our part to educate as many people — even if they don’t learn a whole lot more about the subject, even if they’re just a little bit more aware of what’s happening around them — then I think we’ve done our job.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.


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