Dr. Robert Simpson speaks at the private screening of "The Hungry Heart" at the Brattleboro Retreat on Friday.(Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Dr. Robert Simpson speaks at the private screening of "The Hungry Heart" at the Brattleboro Retreat on Friday. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

BRATTLEBORO -- About 60 people sat captivated in the Education Conference Center of the Brattleboro Retreat for a solid 90 minutes Friday to view a documentary on the torments of opiate addiction.

And even once the credits rolled and the lights were switched on, the same individuals who had enjoyed refreshments an hour and a half earlier remained speechless.

The concentrated silence spoke volumes about "The Hungry Heart," a 2013 documentary that details the lives of young people in St. Albans and their struggles with prescription drug addiction. The Retreat held a private screening Friday afternoon which was followed by a discussion with panelists that included "The Hungry Heart" filmmaker Bess O'Brien and experts in addiction and prevention services. The audience included law enforcement officers, social workers, educators, health care professionals and people in recovery.

Gerri Cote, vice president of operations at the Retreat, started by introducing President and CEO Dr. Rob Simpson, who spoke of the "amazing epidemic" of drug addiction the country is facing. He said the federal War on Drugs has turned into a "War on People" and stressed that addiction must be treated as a disease, as opposed to a crime punishable by jail time.

"The War on Drugs has failed. The 'You Use, You Lose' deterrent has not worked," he told the guests, adding that there needs to be a change in American culture in order truly combat addiction.

"The Hungry Heart," by Kingdom County Productions, chronicles the final year of the career of Dr.


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Fred Holmes and his treatment of addicts. One fateful day, late in his career as a pediatrician, a 16-year-old boy he had been treating since birth walked into his office and said he needed help overcoming addiction to opiates. The doctor said he was floored by the confession and never saw any signs of addiction. He said this is a good representation of the problem, as struggling addicts are not always detectable. Holmes got a license to prescribe Suboxone, a drug that helps alleviate the symptoms of withdrawal, and was soon treating 80 to 90 young patients.

The film documents the stories of more than a dozen recovering addicts, as well as their family members and some addiction experts. One young woman described how she resorted to opiates to numb all physical, mental and emotional pain. She soon got hooked and suffered permanent brain damage from a near-fatal overdose after snorting crushed-up painkillers. Most of the people interviewed said drugs helped fill "a hole" they felt and seemed to make all problems go away. One girl said drugs were "the one thing that never let me down or betrayed me."

For most, occasional use led to dependency, which in turn drove them to commit crimes to feed their habits. One young woman said she once spent $600 a day to get her fix, while another said her addiction cost her $10,000 every week.

"Their culture is a culture that is foreign to me," Holmes said in the film, which also featured interviews with two women who didn't begin using opiates until they were at least 30 years old. One of those women, Raina Lowell, was a member of the discussion panel. Her portrayal and that of the other woman in the film were meant to serve as a reminder that addiction can strike anyone, regardless of age, career path or appearance.

O'Brien, Lowell and the other panelists then took their seats at the front of the room for the discussion portion of the evening. The other panelists were made up of Dr. Geoffrey Kane, the Chief of Addiction Services at the Retreat; Suzie Walker, executive director of Turning Point of Windham County; licensed alcohol and drug counselor Gina Pearce, of Starting Now MAT Services at the Retreat; Robin Rieske, a certified prevention consultant with the Vermont Department of Health; and Lt. Kraig LaPorte, commander of the Vermont State Police Drug Diversion Unit.

A woman in the audience asked O'Brien how she came to make "The Hungry Heart" and the filmmaker said Holmes reached out to her because he grew frustrated with the stigma that all addicts originated from "the wrong side of the tracks" and he wanted to shed some light on the fact that no one is immune to addiction. Lowell said it is unfortunate doctors like Holmes and Kane are "few and far between" but they are a gift to the world.

Riseke said "The Hungry Heart" brings to the forefront all the stigmas attached to addiction. She also said addiction to heroin -- which has the same effect as painkillers such as Percocet and OxyContin -- is often called an epidemic in Vermont, even though only 1 percent of state residents say they have ever used the drug.

LaPorte answered a question posed by a doctor at the Retreat and said addiction cannot be fought solely through incarceration or solely through treatment. He said treatment is wonderful, but getting in trouble with the law sometimes acts as a wake-up call to certain people.

To learn more about the film, go to thehungryheartmovie.org.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.