Elise Schiller was hopeful Monday morning when she lined up to enter City Hall, ready to testify at a hearing on Philadelphia’s opioid crisis. It was hope tinged, as everything is for Schiller, with grief. She would not have been standing in that line if Giana were alive.
The last six years of Schiller’s life have been a series of sorrows. The shock when Giana Natali, her youngest, a former Division I swimmer at Rutgers and a veterinary nurse, told her she had become addicted to opioids. The false hope from treatment programs that never seemed to stick. The anguish of Giana’s death in 2014, of a heroin overdose at one of those treatment facilities. She was 33.
And then the anger when Schiller and her husband delved into Giana’s medical files and realized how badly she had been failed by the drug counselors who pushed outdated treatments instead of medication.
But Schiller over the last few years has put that anger to action. The Germantown resident has become an advocate for better treatment and last year served on a committee for the city’s opioid task force, where she found a committed group of people willing to educate themselves and others. That experience left her feeling hopeful. She carried it to City Hall with her testimony Monday.
Then she walked into Room 400.
None of the activists and advocates who’d lined up to testify got to speak. That’s because most of the Council members there acted as if they were college freshmen who hadn’t done last night’s reading and were hoping the professor didn’t notice.
Shocking: ignorance from the greatest deliberative body on earth.
“The absolute lack of knowledge and understanding on the part of some Council people is sort of astonishing,” Schiller observed. Don’t they have staffs? she wondered. They do. And whatever they’ve been up to, it hasn’t involved a crash course on the epidemic that has killed nearly 3,000 people in Philadelphia in the last three years.
Take Councilman Bobby Henon. At least 122 people died of overdoses in the Sixth District in the first nine months of 2017, and Henon spent his time on the floor asking entry-level questions about how detox works. This from a guy who fought a methadone clinic in his own district.
“I don’t claim to know what the best way to treat it is,” he said of opioid addiction.
Then there was Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district abuts Kensington and whose early support of safe injection sites gave way Monday to questions about the success rate of medication-assisted treatment, which is the gold-standard treatment for opioid-use disorder. He said he was “scared” people would be on medication forever. A city doctor had to come up and tell him that it’s OK if people take medication for, you know, a disease.
And then there was Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who went on a long soliloquy about McDonald’s. Some franchises in his district are considering closing, he said, because too many people in addiction are dropping in. In fairness, small business owners have faced challenges as a result of the opioid crisis. But in a city where 1,200 people died last year, an argument that boils down to “Won’t someone think of the Hamburglar?” seems a bit … off-key.
To her credit, Councilwoman Helen Gym raised important concerns about the trauma of schoolchildren in Kensington.
And Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who convened the hearing and whose district lost at least 287 last year — almost the city’s homicide rate — grilled city officials with critical questions about funding and accountability for treatment programs, and the housing crisis. People need safe spaces to get well, she told me afterward. (I think that logic extends to supporting safe injection sites. She’s not ready to accept that, she told me.)
I don’t agree with some of the councilwoman’s positions. But she was on the front lines of this crisis before anyone else started paying attention.
And she’s far ahead of colleagues in districts that abut hers, whose constituents are likely using and dying and living on the streets in Kensington. Three years into the worst public health crisis in a century, and they treated the hearing as if it were Opioids 101.
All throughout, Schiller jotted down notes for her own testimony, if she could ever get to the floor. All the things she wanted to correct the Council members on.
“Do they want to solve this or what?” she thought. “Do they want to be in the lead on this?”
She never got the mic. She sat in the gallery, with her picture of Giana, the one from high school graduation that she carries everywhere. She dropped her testimony on the pile with the others. I read it, later that day. I hope Council does, too.