JON POTTER

Brattleboro Reformer

BRATTLEBORO -- Dr. Fred Holmes was a humble country pediatrician, treating ear infections, chicken pox and bumps and bruises from his busy St. Albans practice.

Then, a young man walked in eight years ago and changed Holmes’ life forever.

The young man, whom Holmes had known for years, told him he was addicted to prescription drugs, and he needed help. Holmes didn’t have any idea how to help him.

But he set to work, obtaining a license to prescribe suboxone, a methadone-like drug that helps suppress the hold prescription opiates have on addicts and working with an area treatment center to get the young man the help he needed.

That began a journey that Holmes has been on ever since. In the last eight years, he has helped more than 140 young people in Franklin County work to break the hold opiates have on them.

Suboxone is one tool in the fight against prescription drug addition. Counseling, drug testing and treatment, activism and the support of family, friends and community are others.

Now, a new tool has entered the fray. "The Hungry Heart," a powerful new documentary directed by Bess O’Brien, has been making the rounds of venues in the state, raising eyebrows, awareness and community interest in the problem of prescription drug addiction.

Though it focuses on Holmes’ work, through special access to his practice and the extraordinary courage of some of his patients who were willing to put their lives before O’Brien’s lens, "The Hungry Heart" tells a statewide story.

"St. Albans and Vermont in general have become this hotbed of the prescription drug epidemic," said O’Brien.

His other work with Kingdom County Productions has included documentaries on youth issues, foster care and the heroin problem in Vermont. "This is something we need to work together on as a community. How do people get clean and stay clean? It’s because they’re part of a community."

"The Hungry Heart" is coming to our community with a special screening on Wednesday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m., followed by a discussion with O’Brien, Holmes and others. The screening is presented as part of a statewide tour that is co-sponsored by Kingdom County Productions and the Brattleboro Retreat, which was moved to make a commitment to "The Hungry Heart."

"Addiction is one those hidden diseases. We want to be there to support Bess because she brings attention to it," said Dr. Rob Simpson, president and CEO of the Brattleboro Retreat. "We live side by side with people who have addiction problems. It affects people in our communities, and these drugs are so badly addictive and so dangerous."

The film has drawn huge crowds at previous tour stops, including 500 at a venue in St. Albans and 1,200 to the Flynn Theater in Burlington. At every stop, audiences have included people who are addicted to prescription drugs, many of whom who have had the courage to stand up and say so, surprising friends, neighbors and even clinicians unaware of the presence of these drugs in their communities.

So, is the film making a difference?

"Oh my gosh, yes," said Holmes in a telephone interview Friday morning. "To think that somehow we’ve been able to touch this responsive chord ... it’s mind-boggling.

"The whole purpose of the movie is to push the conversation. ... Somewhere in this dialogue there’s a tipping point," Holmes continued. "We’re watching this conversation, and you can see it moving forward."

That’s a far cry from eight years ago, when Holmes was first dealing with the issue. It’s tough for a doctor, he explains, because it’s not the kind of problem you can just stitch up and make go away. It requires community partners in the treatment and social services world, and the road to recovery is often snarled by issues of employment, housing, transportation and family dysfunction. In the film, Holmes calls it "an unhappy kind of medicine to practice." But he has no regrets.

"I think of it as an unanticipated privilege and honor. Who would have thought? On some level, I’m just along for the ride," said Holmes. "I would never have imagined eight years ago, when that young man walked in. ... It’s been one hell of an adventure."

"The Hungry Heart" takes audiences along for some of that adventure and is unflinching in its honest look at addiction. There are success stories, uplifting and inspiring for their courage. There are setbacks and relapses. Two of the people we get to know in the film have died, and "The Hungry Heart" is dedicated to them.

"It’s extremely important to realize that these people didn’t wake up and say ‘I want to be an opiate addict.’ ... I just wanted to show that this is an extremely difficult thing to get through," said O’Brien. "I wanted to make it clear that this is not just a simple matter of ‘let’s get our s--t together and get on with the rest of our lives.’ ... I also wanted to show that one of the big factors in getting clean is who you have around you, your support systems."

For the young addicts in the film, Holmes is one of those important people. More than a clinician, he is a friend, father figure and advocate to these young people, who treats them with warmth, humor and dignity and the right mix of tough love and gentle spirit.

"Fred sort of grounds the movie, in that this is the way we need to treat these people," said O’Brien. "The basic bottom line is that it helps get rid of the stigma, so people don’t say ‘Ew, this person is gross,’ they say ‘Oh, this person is amazing.’"

Holmes retired from practicing in June and is happy to be able to devote his time to practicing advocacy by championing the film and the issues it raises.

"I would hope, for those who have the ability to provide resources, that they recognize that addiction treatment is front and center in American life and gets fully resourced," said Simpson.

For more information, visit www.brattlebororetreat.org or www.thehungryheartmovie.org.