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After struggling with opioid use disorder for seven years, 29-year-old Matt Bridgeman recalls slipping dangerously close to joining the more than 300 people who died of opioid overdoses in Harris County in 2018. The former forest firefighter had erected boundaries through two years of therapy, but they came tumbling down as opioids raged back into his life.

“I was at my lowest—homeless, jobless, and panhandling to scrape enough money together each day to support my addiction,” he says. “I wanted to get sober, but I couldn’t get into a treatment program without money or health insurance, so I just kept failing on my own.”

James R. Langabeer, PhD, EdD, says Matt’s story is a familiar one.
“Most people struggling with an opioid addiction fight it alone,” he explains. “Isolated from society, they often find themselves unable to reach out for help.”

In spring 2018, Langabeer established the Houston Emergency Opioid Engagement System (HEROES) to remove the barriers that prevent people from receiving help by bringing help to them. HEROES is a joint initiative between McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics, composed of physicians, psychiatrists, social workers, drug counselors, peer recovery coaches, and first responders.

“What makes HEROES unique is we work with the Houston Police Department, the Houston Fire Department, and emergency medical services to collect data on who is overdosing and where it is happening most,” says Langabeer. “We use that data to send out a paramedic and peer coach
to visit people who have recently recovered from an overdose and to offer a comprehensive treatment program at no cost to them.”

While waitlists for medication-assisted treatment— combining medications with counseling and behavioral therapies—can stretch to months long, HEROES offers same-day enrollment through its partnership with Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center.

Matt’s mother heard about HEROES in October 2018 and immediately made the call to enroll her son. “I was able to begin medication-assisted treatment that very same day—something I had tried to do for two months on my own,” Matt says.

With the physical cravings and withdrawal symptoms quelled, he was able to commit himself to weekly behavioral counseling and peer recovery meetings. Over the next eight months, Matt rebuilt his life, repairing relationships and starting a job manufacturing and testing utility hoses in the
oil and gas industry.

On Mother’s Day 2018, Matt remembers his addiction consuming his life. “My mother was the last person to have faith in me, and I never even called her,” he says. “I wanted this year to be different.”

In 2019, to celebrate his mother and his newfound sobriety, he took her to Comicpalooza to attend a panel hosted by actors from her favorite show, the HBO hit series Game of Thrones. “It was great to be able to go above and beyond for her and to appreciate her for everything she has done for me,” he says. At the time of our interview, Matt was eight months into recovery. While 90% of individuals with opioid use disorder who do not receive outreach and comprehensive treatment relapse within 90 days, HEROES flips the script. Early results have shown nearly 80% of program participants are sober and active in treatment for at least 90 days.

With more than 380 patients enrolled in the program, HEROES is working with the School of Biomedical Informatics to investigate the data and compare it with figures across the nation. “Our goal is to create a local model for cities across the nation to replicate,” says Langabeer.

Based on the program’s success, in early 2019 the Texas Health and Human Services Commission granted the program $1.85 million, and the United States Department of Justice awarded $350,000. This funding will expand the program’s reach and allow HEROES to serve more patients across Southeast Texas. Langabeer hopes to earn philanthropic support for HEROES to study the genetic components behind opioid use disorder to create targeted interventions for patients.

“So much evidence is still lacking on opioid use disorder,” says Langabeer. “But the creativity and innovation of the School of Biomedical Informatics is helping us transform data into real solutions to save lives and end the opioid epidemic.”

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