Interview with Pam Lehman

This interview was completed on September 27, 2018. The transcript below was computer-generated.

Pam: I am a reporter for The Morning Call, it’s the third largest newspaper in the state of Pennsylvania, and I have worked as either a reporter or an editor for the daily newspaper for the past 25 years. I’ve worked for The Morning Call since 2003, and since about 2013, I am one of several reporters who are on the opioid team here at the newspaper. We are reporters who write almost exclusively, in addition to other duties, about the opioid crisis and the effects that its having on residents in this area, the Lehigh Valley, and nationally. We first starting noticing an uptick in a large number of drugs that are in this area probably beginning in 2012, 2013 and that was the year that my editors made the decision that is a pretty huge topic. It is convoluted and there is all these different *inaudible* next to it and decided to focus the other 3, 4 reporters who are all considered to all be part of the opioid team. And like a lot of stories about it. We started out with really documenting the death, due to opioids and even that was not an easy process to do. We within the past year tried to focus our stories more on recovering, drug treatment, and other treatments that are available for people suffering opioid addiction. Don’t have any lack of, you know it's such a big topic. I feel there aren’t many mid sized papers that felt like it was important enough to dedicate the resources of several reporters doing it. And if you're able to do it a lot of it Is innovates in which the story because it's bad.

Jamal: What was the toughest article that you had to write?

Pam: The stories about the deaths are probably the ones that are the most difficult. So in Pennsylvania we have corners that are death investigators that are tasked with determining when somebody dies, are there suspicious circumstances? Or unknown circumstances. They investigate the debts and determine the cause and manner of death but the record keeping with the corners is kind of careless in Pennsylvania. We were really frustrated with finding out that there is not a very good record of  number of deaths per day that we could look at and say without any hesitation. X number people died due to opioid overdose and or opioid addiction in the past year. So the way we were able to do this. We took several reporters and we went to the County courthouses and the corners had to file to the annual report with let's say a page for each death that they investigated. Reports are huge, they are thousands of pages long so we would have to go to page by Page and copied those that had any hint of opioid addiction. Or drug overdose. and then to make them more stories more personal we cannot only say these are the figures of how many people died of opioid addiction from this area. We looked at the youngest and  the oldest victim and talking to family members who lost somebody to addiction, already there is a stigma there that most people aren't willing to talk about publicly. You know if your loved one died from a drug overdose and I understand there is not a people who step up and talk about the struggle that happened and that there's this awful stigma involved with addiction and drug use. So it is difficult for us to find families to talk to us and now it is becoming more and more willing to address it. Probably one of the most difficult stories I have ever had to do would be to talk to parents who lost really young children. We had someone We had stomach that one of their teen sons died and we had to do a story recently on people who have drug addiction in their loved ones who who say James Smith died because of her struggles with addiction. So I'm always glad that people are willing to share their stories with us. I have had a lot of interviews where we are crying at the table together, and I’m ok with that Because I feel like if you lose your Human Side telling a story you are not doing Justice to that person's life. So the stories get a bit difficult. I like doing more stories about recovery but those are also a little sensitive as well because when somebody ends up recovering when we write a story we worry that they relapse and something's going to happen in their life and it becomes personal into people's lives. While I try to remain objective while I can’t help but be touched by their struggles and wanting a normal life and how do you do that after addiction.


Jamal: Was there anything that you came across in the course of your reporting that changed your perspective on the opioid crisis?

Pam: We have at the morning call this year so far I think we had four of them, we had what we were calling a round table discussion and we invited a panel of guests to speakThey speak to each other and speak to the reporters and we ask them questions about Daryl in the opioid crisis and to share their stories about it. We had one for just law enforcementWe had one with a variety of doctors pain medications and the dentist we had some with family members who were other family members that that dealt with addiction and I think what really changed my focus was participating in ground people's and having medical professionals prescribed several things. One that addiction is a disease heart disease like diabetes and it's like anything else for us as a society to come look at as a disease. We will look at it as a moral failing for sure. And that really changed my perspective There are people who are waking up today I want to be come a heroin addict you know it's a broken gradual decline mutually that drugs quickly. So learning about the brain mechanisms behind addiction and how that works really changed my perspective when it came to writing and one other thing recently that I learned that I just kind of broaching the subject relapse. And how relapse plays a huge role in recovery. Again we would have paramedics say that it's really frustrating that they would win addictions and how to three times in a row and multiple times a week and we would have to treat somebody for a heroin overdose and how frustrating it would be for them because they would say you know I could be helping somebody down street having a heart attack but I'm helping somebody who chose to shoot heroin for the 12th time today. How frustrating it is that is again to speak professionals who talk about relapse is part of recovery but it is hard for us to grasp that we don't look at somebody who let's say is diabetic and close through a diabetic shot and a moral failing or they purposely allowed themselves to do that but when somebody is dealing with addiction and relapse we don't look at as a process but it is definitely part of that process. So these are two of the things are two of the things that I recently learned that had changed my perspective when it came to reporting and recently I have also tried to become more aware of the words that I’m using in my stories.  For the longest time we heard stories about addicts and recovering addicts that Just recently we moved away from doing that and say a person is addicted or a person is recovering and trying to be more selective with our word choice as well. I’ve learned a lot over the past several years when it comes to addiction and recovery and the opioid crisis for sure.


Jamal: And it is interesting what you said about relapse I remember reading somewhere that someone with opioid use disorder made relapse as many as five or six times before, depending on the sustainable path to recovery and I think overall just . reality could help people become more empathetic towards them and also towards the affected person themselves to have hope and realize that there is still hope for them.

Pam: Right and that to me was the really interesting perspective perspective but also kind of another thing that could be changed about reporting processes recently we looked at trauma and how how trauma can affect or why people become addicted it was interesting to have medical professionals recently *inaudible* now instead of saying to people saying that why do you start using drugsThere are more questioning them like tell me about what was your childhood like what was it like where you grew up and how being from a single-parent household or a household some family members struggled with addiction, coming from poverty coming from area where gangs are prevalent, or how all these factors really played a role in addiction and how some people are more vulnerable of it happening in their life. It has really been an interesting topic and it's just there's way more stories than I can ever get to but I'm making progress.


Jamal: In the course of your reporting years you interviewed so many different types of people from so many different backgrounds and I'm curious what kind of interview subjects have been the most helpful in  illuminating the opioid crisis in your area of Pennsylvania?

Pam: I would say it's been kind of there's a few perspectives. There's the recovery addict, there's someone who's in recovery hearing their stories and and what they had to go through how they started using drugs and how how it affected their family those are always really important we want to hear their stories and understand that not everyone goes through addiction the same way but I'm really struck to buy medical experts those in Mental Health crisis counseling psychologist to really help us understand all the factors behind the addiction that we don't even realize ourselves. we have a lot of recent people saying why should I care about this person who chooses used to heroin if I have a family whose stealing from me to support their habits who there’s a woman who pays attention to their kids you know , why should I care? We found that a number of counties we've gone to people were frustrating to understand that more like I said before it's not a moral failing people from every age gender race social status are affected by this it's not just strong male unemployed person who's doing heroin that are professionals and a lot of circumstances these are people with jobs these are people with families so telling their story is the most important I'm going to town meetings recently and we've had a lot of them about the opiate crisis here it's just in general how many people know somebody who is affected by opioid addiction and the opioid crisis and like really every person in the room Can somehow relate to it in one way or another it's a friend of neighbor it's somebody you knew from high school so I'm hoping. In our dedication to writing about this crisis that people are understanding that it's not a moral failing There's no one Silver Bullet there is no one answer for everybody when it comes to treating or dealing addiction. Some people need medication to help with the addiction for other people that doesn't work so that's the really interesting part, learning all the different types of drug treatments that are available and how and why they work for various people.

Jamal: What would you say was the single most memorable experience that you had while covering the opioid crisis?

Pam: I would say it was that one of the Round Table discussions we had recently was having a drug and alcohol administrator about a program here in the county say to me after or I really great discussion we were exploiting the story and we were all excited to start writing and he looked at me and told what are you doing personally to try come back to help. Would you be willing to carry the locks down and I said I didn't even think about it and I said sure we are in downtown section where the newspaper is located right across the street there's a bus depot and I would say every day numerous times of day there are calls for opioid overdose within a few feet of our building. It is not hard to see people suffering from what looks to be opioid addiction so for him to say that to me hey would you be able to carry the locks down would you be able to use this use it if you had to I said I definitely would. I had several family members who take prescribed opioids for pain medications and a kind of would always be in the back of my mind like what would happen if they took too much medication but what if they took too many pills or would I be able to help them so myself and 6 other reporters training to use the locks own and became certified to use them and we are with us in our person and our bags are in our cars that I have been a couple times where we went to grab for it thinking we were going to need to use it out on the street like in our need to hear but it hasn't happened yet. But it hasn't But one of the parts of this covering this crisis that this is the most easiest thing I can do will you wrote about how anyone can be trained can anyone be in a lockdown how it's safe to help somebody that's suffering from an opioid overdose you're not going to hurt anyone but using it and I have several people call me afterwards and say you know what you made that time so easy I went out and did it myself so that was really great feeling for me and something that I knew to make a difference and not only videos we record the podcast but but carrying around in my purse everyday.

Jamal: In the time you have  been covering this do you feel that the opioid crisis is slowly turning around in your area or do you think there are still significant challenges ahead?

Pam: When it comes to education and awareness I feel like we're getting there we are we are ahead of where we were several years ago when it comes to writing about all the topics that are involved in this. But that's here still continue to occur on any record-high basis. I mean the most recent drug deaths were up to I'd like to say to any to 60% in several of the major counties that we cover. In that door it is believed that the record support the president could turn into becoming more and more available showing up more in hell and so that's not stopping and it is concerning because it seems like there are so many law enforcement officials on board and politicians that are all aware of the crisis and what's happening but the dads are continuing to rise and we need several medical at church to tell us that we may not see a change in that per year in somebody's projected 22-24 recently for us and to think about we are still going to see this record numbers year after year is haunting. It's really difficult thing to comprehend but but you know as I said earlier there is no one answer to this crisis and I think a bunch of different agencies on board including law enforcement's and regular people family members to help educate people and make them aware of hopefully stand this time of that I'm happy more people are aware of this and are supporting journalism around it we've definitely made a good response from people whenever we post and which feel like education is better and the stigma is wearing back a bit but the the deaths are continuing to rise in this area and we're not quite sure when that will stop but we're getting better.


Jamal:  If somebody gives you a magic wand that allowed you to change any policy in order to more effectively alleviate the crisis, which policy would you zero in on?

Pam:  I would want more drug treatment to disability facilities to have this available for people who are not insured. In one of our recent round tables it was really disheartening to hear there is this huge population that are suffering from addiction, they don't have insurance and they cant enter drug treatment for it's too difficult. And to have drug treatment Specialist say that you know what if you have insurance you are one hundred percent guaranteed to get a bed and drug treatment facility. If you don't have insurance it's really difficult to find a bad for you. And I understand this the drug treatment facilities just like any other business they have to make a profit to make money to pay their bills and to pay their employees and to keep the lights on but I feel like if there were more Treatment available for people who don't have insurance whether that be through medication assisted treatment or through impatient drug treatment. I think it is something that critically needed and if you don't have insurance it's really difficult to find so if I had a magic wand it would have more treatments available for people who don't have insurance.


Jamal: Do you feel that Medicaid expansion in Pennsylvania is something that has helped more people have access to treatment to these facilities?

Pam:  I do. There are no more doctors that are able to prescribe things like methadone things like that that are definitely have been going recently well probably it's been a couple months now but they clear the opioid crisis emergency like a natural possessed which allowed for a lot of funding to float a lot of these agencies it lifted some of the barriers that people may have when it comes to things like helping them get their birth certificate more efficiently at a lower cost to help them get into drug treatment facilities it allowed for a standing order in Pennsylvania and watch them and in all areas pharmacies but it hasn't happened to the level that officials are hoping. So I definitely have been some changes when it comes to government in the way that they are able to find the way that they are able to help people speak more treatment and that's a great thing but again we have learned recently from around people discussions that there are still a lot of things there that it's difficult to Wrangle a state or local federal agencies and make sure that everyone is on the same page with providing services but it does seem like they're starting to be more services available to lower-income and those without insurance in Pennsylvania.

Jamal: There's a saying that “good journalism makes the important interesting”, and I'm curious as to what technique do you use in your reporting to achieve that ideal?

Pam: I think that our editors have always pushed us to be as in-depth and as extensive and take as much time as you need to to make a great story. If something happens I think for a lot of news agencies with the 24-hour news cycle it's easy to be very reactionary and turn something around really quickly and get it on the web and let our readers know about it. But I feel like the editors here in the reporters have really pushed themselves to tell really compelling stories and do it in a way that is actor and interesting and has a lot of we don't feel rushed here to write a lot of these larger stories that we work on. We are able to give the time to do that in our editors always encourage us to speak to as many people as possible and experts go on knock on doors so I'm feel like I'm fortunate to work somewhere. Quality over quantity in telling a compelling story and doing it in a variety of different ways and a variety of different methods. Using different methods like a podcast which was started in the past couple months, videos, photos, a lot of online elements are a lot of important features here but we luckily have a lot of staff and reporters to do those here.

Jamal: What you were saying about you know the 24-hour news cycle yeah I think a lot of times on the evening news there'll be some things about focused on statistics life overdose or the economic cost of the crisis and I think it is important like they're kind of reporting that you do that it is more personal narrative that people can relate to.

Pam: I mean yeah. To me Likes of a story as a reader that draws me in because of the human element that figures numbers are incredibly important but being able to tell somebody story their eyes my words is really important to me and again I think that families that face the stigma or be able to teach people more about addiction is human stories and I'm always as reported I told other quarters as many intense that I'm always surprised that when I knock on someone's door that if I send them an email that people are so willing to share their stories because they want to help others and I hear that over and over again. I hear someone stories about their overdose in the house another person about their problems. And that can lead to really straight corners and these people just want to help they want two people to be aware about addiction they want to help others and they they don't want others to be in the same fate as they are and that's really important to me to try and repeal those in my story.

Jamal: In guess in addition to your coverage and your team's coverage and the other initiative taken including the podcast, what other resources would you recommend to members of the public who would like to know more about the opioid crisis?

Pam: Your county agency and the county drug and alcohol agency are kind of amazing. I push this over to all the time and for people who have in it if they want to find help they want want to learn more about the opiate crisis calling your county's drug and alcohol agency is really a great step. In one of the county's we covered here they have a drug court so people with drug offenses and non violent criminal offenses meet with judges and staff members and politicians and drug counselors every week and talk about their struggles try to find answers to their problems and how to get a job or I can open up a bank account and I was hearing open to the public. That's another thing that I told people to fill you in on drug court you will be amazed and learn how recovery is but it's possible and how it takes a lot of people and a lot of support for that to happen. I think it's a really great resources for people to go in and fit in and learn from ascent and see how this affects somebody's life on a daily basis the other thing is their meetings those are happening more and more in a lot of communities. Hope you're talking about addiction and listening to other people's stories and experts there that can talk about how it's affecting the community and it's not just affecting the people whose loved ones are addicted it affects the community as a whole. And learning about education and trying to teach kids as early as possible about addiction about the opioid crisis is really important so and you know somebody has a loved one that is suffering and addiction don't be afraid to talk to them and ask them questions and offer them support. I think a lot of times unfortunately family feel a shame embarrassed to talk about it so I think if you have somebody in your circle in your friends and your family that you know is going through this to just be able to offer a few words of encouragement and that would make a huge difference and it would is good to be willing to listen to each other stories and support each other.

Jamal: That's a really good point. I think that's all the questions that I have. Are there any additional thoughts or ideas that you would like to share?

Pam: I hope. If people listen to your podcast in your community community where they don't see a lot of opioid addiction in their media, I encourage them to reach out to the newspaper and the TV and the podcasters, bloggers and try to get the word out and ask, it's happening in our community and what can we do to help it. It's happening everywhere across the state across the country there is no doubt that it's going to continue to keep happening so I hope that there the more discussion publicly about it the closer we come to helping the untimely death and understand more about addiction I'm looking forward to hear the podcast so thank you for reaching out and talk to me I think it's a really important topic and I never thought I'd become tired of talking about it really important to me I really appreciate being able to share my thoughts share other peoples ideas when it comes to covering this topic.