HIBBING — Jessica Hammer has been stalked by death.
The 27-year-old Virginia woman was 14 when her mother died of a drug overdose. Her best friend walked through the darkness with her, but then took her own life a few months later.
Hammer’s nephew was just 1 when he died because of physical abuse. The man she named her son Clayton after died of an overdose that was ruled a homicide.
Her mother’s death led Hammer to her own journey into the drug culture, starting with abuse of the hyperactivity drug Adderall and prescription painkillers, but spiraling to heroin and methamphetamine by the time she was 16.
She overdosed twice.
“There are times when I thought I was going to die for sure," Hammer said.
She spent six months in the psych ward at Fairview Range Medical Center in Hibbing. Her son was taken from her during that time.
She was sober for 2½ years, but entered into an abusive relationship. The man’s father took his own life, and her partner relapsed. After four months, she relapsed, too.
“Straight for heroin,” she said, although she also used meth and painkillers.
But Jessica Hammer’s story is not a story about death; it’s a story about life overcoming death. It’s about despair giving way to hope. It’s about a young woman walking away from the drug culture and building a new life for herself.
She’s not doing it alone. Her story is also the story of a nurse who refused to give up on a vision for a better way to treat substance abuse on the Iron Range. It’s about a supportive church and her faith in God. And it’s about her determination to give 6-year-old Clayton a better life growing up than she had.
A breakthrough for opioid addiction
“My son is my main motivator,” Hammer said.
Clayton, a well-behaved little boy with a crew cut and a winsome smile, was sitting nearby with Hammer’s close friend, Danielle Kindstrand, during an interview in February. He later moved closer to sit on his mom’s lap. Hammer was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt with the words "Love Jesus" inscribed on it.
The gathering took place in the boardroom at Fairview Range in Hibbing. It also included nurse Danielle C. Jones and Dr. Amanda McDonald, a family medicine physician. They piloted a medication-assisted treatment program in November 2018 modeled after a successful program at CHI St. Gabriel’s Health Family Medical Center in Little Falls, Minnesota.
Clayton had been feeling under the weather, and his mom had kept him out of school. This was well before COVID-19 concerns surfaced in the region.
Jones, a nurse at Fairview Range for 8½ years, said she first became concerned about the region’s drug problem when processing prescription refill orders. The number of opioid refills was “astronomical,” she said. She went into research mode, and came across a video about the Little Falls program, which originated when doctors there realized their hospital’s emergency room was being used primarily as a source for pain pills.
Hammer knows what that’s about. She previously used the Fairview Range ER as a source for pain pills, she said, as did others.
“There were times my ex-boyfriend would literally try to break something on him just so he could get pain pills," she said. "That’s the sickness of it.”
Jones reached out to them and a co-founder, Dr. Kurt DeVine, called back. He told her she would need to bring a prescriber on board to make Suboxone available to patients.
An opioid, Suboxone is considered the standard of care for treatment of opioid use disorder, McDonald said. It reduces the craving for heroin and prescription painkillers.
“I didn’t even know what Suboxone was at that time,” Jones recalled. “That’s when I started doing my research. And then I hounded all of the providers for probably a year.”
McDonald said she was skeptical about Suboxone and not initially eager to take on something new.
“The way the system is set up today, you have 15-minute office visits, you have phone calls … paperwork,” she explained. “You’re already feeling like you’re trying to keep your head above water, and somebody’s bringing you this whole new program.”
But McDonald did her own research and became convinced the program was needed and could be effective. The use of Suboxone has been shown to decrease mortality from opioid abuse by 70%, she said. She and Jones launched it Nov. 2, 2018.
Just before the February interview, they welcomed their 35th patient into the program. As of last week, the number was 38. But an additional physician and a physician assistant have also obtained their waivers for prescribing Suboxone, bolstering their crew.
It means that when someone is desperate enough to come see them, they can respond quickly.
“We will stay over the lunch hour, you know, whatever we need to do to meet that patient and get them the help they need,” Jones said.
The tipping point
There’s no question that help is needed. The Iron Range, like everywhere else, is beset with drug abuse issues. St. Louis County reported 230 overdoses and 22 fatalities in 2019, according to Duluth Police Lt. Jeff Kazel, who commands the regional Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force. Another 52 overdoses and six fatalities have been reported so far this year.
Although the majority of those occurred in Duluth, the Range is not exempt, said Jeff Polcher, health educator for the Rural Aids Action Network in Virginia.
“We’re seeing a lot of overdoses,” Polcher said. “I get anecdotal reports from clients … that there were three ‘saves’ at a particular building one weekend or they’ve been saved twice themselves” with the use of the overdose reversal drug Narcan.
Duluth is characterized more by opioids and the Iron Range by meth, said Polcher, who retired as a social service worker for the county a year ago and after two weeks took a part-time position with RAAN. But both appear on the Range, and some people use both — even though meth is an “upper” and heroin a “downer,” to put it in the simplest terms.
Hammer used whatever was available, she said.
She was 7 or 8 when her parents broke up. She preferred her mom’s company after that, even though her dad was a source of stability, she said.
“I grew up seeing so many things that an 8-year-old or 7-year-old shouldn’t see,” Hammer said. “Parties going on, and just stuff like that. … I would go over (to her mom’s), and I’d be smoking cigarettes or drinking wine coolers. … I had a tattoo at a young age, because my mom had people doing tattoos in her house. I was 9 years old.”
In times past, Hammer modeled similar behavior for her son. Clayton was taken away from her in 2015, a few months before she was committed to the psych ward.
Three days before that happened, Hammer said, she cried out to God.
“I said, ‘God, I can’t do this anymore,’” she related. “‘If you are there, I need your help.’ … The things that the Lord has shown me are amazing. And I know without a doubt that he’s real.”
'That's not the life I want for him'
Hammer knows the exact day she quit using drugs the first time: July 28, 2016. She stayed clean for 30 months and perhaps might never have relapsed had she not made what she admits was an unwise relationship choice.
“Before he physically started hurting me he was mentally hurting me,” Hammer said. “I just resorted back to the old ways of dealing with pain.”
She had a good job as a property manager, but it was in a building where many drug users lived, so Hammer knew right where to turn for her supply. To get what she craved, she sold possessions she had accumulated.
“You wake up and if you don’t have it, you’re looking for it,” she said. “And you’re selling whatever you need to sell to get it. It steals your soul. It turns you into a completely different person.”
Hammer sent Clayton to live with her father and stepmother three days before Child Protection Services approached her about the situation.
She found help in the church she had been attending, Expectancy, in Mountain Iron. It was the first church where she felt at home, Hammer said. She believes people knew she was using drugs, but she was accepted anyway. A friend there gave her Jones’ number, and Jones scheduled her in the next day.
Like McDonald, Hammer was initially skeptical about Suboxone, but now she said she believes it has helped her break free. She used meth once after that initial appointment last May, she said, and nothing since. After completing a treatment program in Virginia ahead of schedule, she took Clayton back. Child Protection Services closed her case. She has gone from weekly appointments with McDonald and Jones to one every two months. She enrolled in cosmetology school in Duluth and was on track to graduate in July until COVID-19 slowed her progress.
In a phone conversation last week, Hammer said she had been laid off from her job as a receptionist at a hair salon for the same reason. She had just learned that her church would be switching to online services for the time being. She was worried about how COVID-19 might affect her father.
But she’ll be OK, Hammer said.
McDonald said that of those who have enrolled in their program, a couple aren’t doing well. Others have done better, but with some setbacks. Still others have excelled.
Hammer is in the latter category, Jones added.
“Jessica has been the A-plus student,” she said. “She never missed an appointment. Never.”
As grateful as she is for the help she has received from the clinic, it’s not the main thing, Hammer said.
“I think the hugest key is the relationship I have with the Lord,” she said. “If I didn’t have that, I would have nothing.”
But she also has that little motivator with the charming smile.
“I didn’t want to put my son through everything that I had already put him through back when he was 2 and 3 years old,” Hammer said. “That’s not the life I want for him. I really don’t want him to ever have to go through the pain I went through with not having my mom in my life.”