Stories of grief, hope and recovery - Albuquerque Journal

Stories of grief, hope and recovery

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Opioid addiction.

It’s an epidemic that wreaks havoc on lives.

Jennifer Weiss-Burke, of Albuquerque, knows firsthand of the damage of opioid addiction.

Albuquerque resident Jennifer Weiss-Burke appears in the documentary “Gateway,” which examines the opioid epidemic. (Courtesy of Gateway Film)

Weiss-Burke lost her 18-year-old son, Cameron, to a heroin overdose on Aug. 13, 2011.

Cameron’s addiction began after he was prescribed opioids to treat pain after suffering several sports-related injuries – two broken collarbones in less than six months and subsequent surgeries – in high school.

Weiss-Burke is featured in the documentary “Gateway,” which is making the rounds on the film festival circuit.

The film is about three families affected by opioid addiction that began with a prescription to manage pain after surgery.

It provides an intimate look into the struggles that can be caused by legal opioid prescriptions when the dangers of the medications are not properly understood.

Weiss-Burke agreed to tell her story because of the angle the documentary takes.

“It shows multiple sides of the opioid epidemic,” she said. “From a prescribing side, it shows recovery. It shows the side of loss and it covers such a broad range. These are issues that people need to hear and understand.”

The drug dealer in Cameron Weiss’ case was found guilty by a federal jury on May 13.

After losing Cameron, Weiss-Burke began a mission to build something that she wishes would have existed for her son – Serenity Mesa, a recovery center for adolescents battling addiction.

“When we created Serenity Mesa, it was out of frustration and despair,” she said. “I had lost my son and I wasn’t able to get him effective treatment because he was under 18. I spent thousands of dollars trying to get him help.”

Serenity Mesa has been open for nearly five years.

About 140 kids have gone through the program.

“Some days, I see my son in a lot of these kids,” she said. “They are all struggling with an addiction. They fell into it with prescribed opiates. They don’t understand the long-term effects. Cameron was in and out of jail, and it was a constant struggle for him. People don’t realize that it’s an hourly struggle. The slope is slippery, and we’re trying to provide some stability to these kids. They need to realize that a lifestyle change has to happen.”

The film also follows Jen Wysong of Baltimore, who fell into addiction after receiving an opioid prescription to manage pain after a Caesarean section.

Although her path to recovery was riddled with setbacks, she has celebrated more than three years of sobriety and is now a peer support counselor at the same treatment facility that supported her journey to sobriety.

Also featured is Dr. Richard Chudacoff, a New Jersey-based OB-GYN who is at the forefront of addressing the opioid epidemic by providing his C-section patients with opioid-free surgery.

Fueled by a personal connection to the opioid epidemic, Chudacoff is an advocate for using non-opioid options to manage pain after surgery.

The film is directed by Dana Richie.

“The film is meant to start a conversation for change,” Richie said. “We wanted to educate that there are nonopiate options available to manage pain. It’s too easy to go down this dark path of addiction.”

The production took six months to complete.

Richie and crew were in New Mexico for about a week with Weiss-Burke.

“Jennifer was chosen because of her amazing work with recovery,” Richie said. “When we started to hear Jennifer’s story, it was so powerful. We didn’t know what to expect. With each story, it took us down a different path because every person opened up with so much authenticity and trust. We went back to the drawing board to begin to weave everything together.”

Richie used 2018 data from the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science.

According to a report, a lot of the addiction stems from the overprescribing of opioids after surgeries.

The report says enough opioids were prescribed in 2017 to provide every American with 32 pills.

Alabama remained the top state in the nation for opioid prescriptions per capita. New Mexico is ranked 29th.

In 2016, 41 pills per capita were prescribed in New Mexico, but in 2017 the number decreased by 15%, to 35 pills prescribed per capita.

Richie wants to get the film in front of as many eyes as possible, which is why it is available to screen online at

Weiss-Burke said the conversation has to start and the stigma has to be addressed.

“A lot of parents feel like it’s their fault,” she said. “We have to talk more about this issue. Keeping it together during filming was difficult to do. My goal was to make it a day of filming without losing it. There’s stories of hope and recovery. We have to work together to address all of these issues. It’s a big problem, and it does start with the overprescribing of opioids.”

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