New Quinault Wellness Center aims to combat ever-growing Fentanyl crisis

Jun 22, 2022, 6:13 PM | Updated: Jun 23, 2022, 8:08 am
Mandy Nottingham, 45, and her dog “Betty Boop” are homeless in Aberdeen, WA. Mandy Nottingham, 45, and her dog “Betty Boop” are homeless in Aberdeen, WA. Construction of the Quinault Wellness Center in Aberdeen, WA. Opening is tentatively set for October 2022. The Quinault Nation reservation is situated along Washington’s central coast.

In King County alone, nearly 400 people died after using fentanyl in 2021, which is a very high number considering that number was just three in 2015.

Fentanyl is a powerful opioid illegally filtered into our country through Mexico that ravages local communities regardless of age, race, gender, or socioeconomic background. Certainly though, there are groups more susceptible to the ravages of this drug, which is why treatment centers are so needed, especially in parts of the state that can’t easily access big city services, like those in Seattle.

Aberdeen might be a city – maybe town – that comes to mind when you think about the state’s opioid epidemic. Not only is it notoriously known as the hometown of known heroin addict and Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain (who died by suicide while in active addiction to the opioid), but it’s also a place where nearly 30 years after Cobain’s death, they are still dealing with the same demons.

This dishonorable association is what makes Aberdeen the best spot for a new wellness center opening up near the center of town. Just a couple of blocks away from the construction site is like a ghost town with no visible business being done or strolling happening. The only residents spotted on a sunny February afternoon are addicts actively high on their drug of choice or trying to catch some privacy or sleep while they come down.

Mandy Nottingham, 45, is happy to introduce her dog “Betty Boop,” which looks like a cross between a Chihuahua and Jack Russell Terrier. Nottingham’s face has a large gathering of wounds from the corner of her mouth to mid-cheek, indicative of drug use.

Nottingham grew up in Hoquiam – a stone’s throw from Aberdeen – and has lived a hard life. She says she endured an abusive and, in her own words, homicidal boyfriend. She suffers from anxiety due to that relationship, but it was a workplace injury that accelerated her on the road to where she is today.

“I broke my neck. I have three fractures in my neck from a 100-pound box falling off a pallet at work,” Nottingham explained.

‘It just takes one time:’ Fentanyl’s deadly toll across WA, US shows no signs of slowing

She was given oxycodone for the pain and that prescription, she believes, was like the fertilizer for the seeds of addiction she held through genetics. Her mother was a drug addict, too. So, when fully addicted and with her mother’s passing, Nottingham spiraled further. A neighbor found her locked in a closet.

“She asked what was wrong and I kind of told her, and she was like ‘here try this’ and it was some heroin on foil,” Nottingham says, acknowledging that, at the time, it wasn’t what she wanted to do. “But it keeps me stable and the doctors won’t give me the medication I need.”

What she’s talking about is the anti-anxiety medication that she ran out of and couldn’t get refilled because of her drug use. But even for Nottingham, ravaged and scared by the street drug that now brings her comfort, she won’t touch fentanyl.

“I know people that are doing the fentanyl powder and the pills and those have to be the worst things that have ever hit the streets. People thought meth addicts and heroin addicts were bad? They ain’t seen nothing,” Nottingham says. “Nothing compared to these people who do those blues. They would kill their mother to get one. They are horrible. Absolutely horrible.”

Nottingham says a group used to hand out fentanyl testing strips to drug users, but that program stopped. And, she says, programs available to find housing don’t work because you need to get sober first. She feels defeated by the hurdles in her path to sobriety, but she’ll also admit that she’s gotten sober before and went back to drugs because nothing seemed to get better for her while sober – so why bother?

An hour’s drive away, another woman is tangled in the web of drug addiction, but in a different way. Christine Winn, CEO of Quinault Nation Enterprise Board, talks about the two deaths that inspired her to spearhead the new Quinault Wellness Center in Aberdeen.

“July of 2020, we lost a young tribal member. His mother – about six weeks later lost her other son to overdose as well,” Winn explained. “I’m a mother. I have children. I have five children, and I can’t imagine the pain that woman went through to lose two children just weeks apart.”

The Quinault Wellness Center is a gift to the community from The Quinault Nation, whose reservation rests along Washington’s central coast. Tribal leadership, at the behest of Winn, approved spending $20 million to build it. The program it will use is based on the same holistic service model first introduced by the Swinomish Tribe when it opened the didgʷálič Wellness Center in 2017. Today, it claims a 75% success rate in keeping people in the program.

“When you walk into that clinic in Swinomish, they can get you registered for treatment within about 17  minutes. Our clinic will provide dental care, medical care, chemical dependency therapy, and behavioral health therapy. There are social workers that will be there to help people rebuild their lives, if they need help getting on public assistance or housing, or signing up for school, writing resumes, job skills, etc.” Winn said.

In other words, the reason why the Swinomish and Winn believe this program works is because it offers everything. The Quinault Wellness Center will also provide childcare, which is a barrier for any working parent trying to lead a successful life, but especially necessary for an addicted parent.

“The patient can go in, get their OTP (opioid treatment program) treatment, they can go get their behavioral health therapy, their chemical dependency therapy, they pick up their baby and go home,” Winn explained. “Eliminating barriers. That’s the whole theme of the program. We provide shuttle service, we’ll pick you up from your house, we will bring you to the clinic, we’ll get you your treatment, and then we will drive you home.”

Winn could go on, but cuts herself off to say this:

“It would be really hard for you to get kicked out of our program. The whole point is to help these people get healthy. No matter how many times we have to help them. No matter how many times they relapse. We just want them in the program to be healthy.”

She turns momentarily serious and gives a mother’s stern look as she explains, “I will personally drag you back if that’s what it takes.”

While these programs are being funded, introduced, and sustained by Native American tribes, It’s essential to Winn for anyone reading this to know the Quinault Wellness Center is for everyone.

“That’s ingrained in our community. It’s ingrained in our culture. I think we have always been that way. I think that our people are very generous people to everybody regardless of how we’ve been treated. My father, born in 1941, tells me about the ‘No Redskins’ signs on businesses here in this county when he was young. The relationship between The [Quinault] Nation and Grays Harbor hasn’t always been as good as it is now. It’s really good now. If there’s a problem in this community that they need help with, the Quinault Nation is going to be there and we are here to help.”

That might be precisely what people who are addicted, like Mandy Nottingham on the streets of Aberdeen, need. They need a place where people won’t give up.

“I’ve been clean. I’ve literally detoxed myself and gotten clean for nine, 10 months at a time. The last time I got clean, I got clean for nine months. It’s hard to explain. If getting sober hasn’t changed anything in my life, if it hasn’t changed people’s outlook on me, then why not still do it?” Nottingham admits.

However, when the Quinault Wellness Center opens on the date given as “tentatively October,” it might be the first that means it when it says ‘come as you are.’

“It’s been a tremendous effort for the leaders of our tribe to get a place at the table and have an opportunity to help when we can. But we’re here now,” Winn says.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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New Quinault Wellness Center aims to combat ever-growing Fentanyl crisis