John Green knew his daughter was in trouble. Kelsey Green said she was sexually assaulted twice as an adolescent and began self-medicating with OxyContin pills in 2011. It eventually became a heroin addiction.
“No parent plans for when their child becomes addicted,” says Green. “We didn’t understand detox…we didn’t know what to ask. When it started, she left.”
Kelsey continued to struggle with addiction, but dreamed of a life beyond addiction. She told Green that when she recovered, she hoped to write her book and visit her school to tell her own story. She wanted to explain what her addiction and withdrawal symptoms are really like. She hoped that at least one person could be stopped on the path of addiction. But a few months after that conversation, in 2016, when she was 24, Kelsey was arrested. She died in her cell in prison due to complications from withdrawal.
“In the morning, when they came to check on her, she was naked under the call button, stuck with her hands up out of reach,” Green said.
Kelsey died of dehydration, a common but treatable complication of opioid withdrawal. Ms. Green lost 20 pounds of fluid during her short time in prison, she said.green sued and won Unfair Death Settlements to the State.
Kelsey isn’t trying to convince her kids to avoid opioids. But in 2018, Green met someone who could help tell Kelsey’s story. Michael Carson is a former teacher and chairman of the Massou District Opioid Control Committee.
“I am blessed,” Carson said. “Fortunately my children and grandchildren have been spared any problems with addiction. But I was so touched by his story that I wanted to do something.”
Carson and Green found a gaping hole in opioid education in Alaska. They wanted young people to have a clear understanding of the risks of drugs, not just being told to say no. Also, the opioid epidemic is changing rapidly, so they wanted a lesson that could be updated multiple times a year.
So Carson developed a curriculum inspired by Kelsey. He already teaches it in four schools and a group of school nurses in Massou Municipality. As many as 20 more Anchorage middle and high schools will likely be taught this year. This comes at a critical time for the school district. Last spring, the district responded to 10 non-fatal drug overdoses at five schools, several of which were attributed to children taking fentanyl. Carson hopes to eventually teach this lesson statewide.
This curriculum teaches children how addiction works and what it feels like to be off opioids. It’s called “Kelsey’s Lesson”.
Carson said the lesson uses images from Alaska to plainly teach the science of addiction. And it describes exactly what withdrawal feels like.
“I’ve heard stories of people who have gone through detoxes and have felt like they’ve been possessed by aliens,” Carson said. “I felt like they were going to die.”
Carson worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to follow national guidelines. And last spring, the Anchorage Board of Education unanimously voted to include the lesson in health education for grades 8 through 12.
Kathy Bell is the director of medical services for the school district. She said she was very afraid of opioid use in schools and drug education like this was an important part of preventing student deaths.
“Students are using it in their experiments,” Bell said. “And they think they’re probably taking a pain reliever like Percocet, but Percocet now has fentanyl in it, and they’re completely unaware of it. …It is the very small doses of fentanyl that can lead to death because it causes respiratory depression.”
Kelsey’s lessons are just one piece in a larger puzzle of how school districts are responding to infectious diseases. She also distributes overdose kits and trains educators on how to use them. Last spring, they responded to an epidemic of overdoses with opioid education. Bell said it seemed to have worked and that no more fentanyl incidents occurred until the school holidays. And she said the more drug education, the better.
“Even if you say it in September and say it again in January, it doesn’t hurt either because they forgot or they didn’t think about it,” Bell said. “And they may make the wrong choice. And we don’t want anyone to make such a wrong choice. I hope that.”
For years, Greene struggled to come to terms with the death of her daughter, Kelsey. He kept asking why this had to happen when Kelsey had a chance to detox. Kelsey died in state custody and was denied life support, so Green said he had an obligation to share her story.
“Kelsey could have died of an overdose at a friend’s house or on the street or whatever, nothing would have happened and nothing would have changed,” Green said. “Maybe I should have checked her body in the trash. I had to give her a voice because of the way she died.”
Green and Carson are organizing on a state-by-state basis House Bill 6, which requires the Department of Education to create an opioid curriculum. They want amendments to make drug education mandatory. That means opioid education is mandatory in all schools in Alaska.
Related: Counterfeit pills containing fentanyl flood Alaska’s black market