Hungry hearts film aired in Milford shows how Vermont doctor treated addiction

MILFORD – The doctor had cared for some of them since they were babies. They were good kids, but now something was going very wrong. Too many of them were getting hooked on prescription drugs.

A few of the addicts were dying. All of them were ruining their lives.

So Dr. Fred Holmes, who had practiced pediatric medicine in St. Albans, Vt., for decades, began to do what he felt he had to do. He started treating their addictions, just as he had treated their ear infections and other childhood diseases.

Dr. Holmes’ story, told in a documentary called “The Hungry Heart,” was shown April 1 at the Amato Center theater. The showing was sponsored by Community Action for Safe Teens, a committee of the Boys and Girls Club of Souhegan Valley whose mission is the prevent substance abuse.

Throughout the 90-
minute film, you watch Holmes bring his skills, compassion and common sense to problems many doctors would find distasteful or just too hard to deal with.

“I didn’t choose to take care of addicts,” he says in the film, but patients had asked him to help and he didn’t say no.

More than 100 teenagers were abusing drugs while they were regular patients, he said, and “doctors were clueless.

“It’s a horrible disease … a nasty, nasty, unrelenting illness,” the doctor says, and people who suggest that addicts deserve what they get – that attitude he calls “inhuman.”

Part of his treatment program includes suboxone, a drug that quiets cravings, but Holmes makes clear that effective treatment has to be much more than that.

Relationships, jobs, education, money, even food, are all essential, and the film shows the doctor paying attention to all that as he steers his patients toward better lives.

“Have you had breakfast?” he asks some them as they sit down at the other side of his desk.

One look at his face makes it obvious that the core relationship is the one with the doctor himself, “a quintessential country doctor,” the film-maker calls him.

The movie starts with a view of Holmes driving through town listening to a radio report about the epidemic of prescription drug abuse, but most of it shows the young people themselves, telling their own stories.

Part of Holmes’ treatment is in simply talking. At one point in the movie Holmes mentions to a young man that it has been three years since “the magic conversation” between him, the boy and his mother that started his journey to sobriety.

Some of the movie is bleak and doesn’t shy away from the failures. One heartbroken mother whose daughter died listens to her voice on her answering machine. Another woman is shown visiting the snow-covered grave of her brother, “the only person who understood me.”

Holmes retired from his practice in 2013, and the viewer is left to wonder if any doctors in the St. Albans area have taken up where he left off.

But it ends on a cautiously upbeat note, with updates on many of the former addicts who have turned their lives around.

“The Hungry Heart” has been shown all over the country, and toured Vermont towns in 2013. After Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin viewed it, filmmaker Bess O’Brien said, he devoted his entire 2014 State of the State message to Vermont’s addiction problem and got behind efforts to devote more resources to addiction treatment.

The wait list in the city of Burlington, Vt. went from 400 to 100, she said.

The idea of compassion is emphasized throughout the film, with Bob Bick, director of the Howard Center, a counseling agency that worked with Holmes, saying the stigma of drug abuse is “about blame” and that attitude results in a lack of full engagement with the sufferers.

Addicts tell their own stories and some are stories of casual drug use that brought temporary peace and pleasure.

“It felt like a gift from God,” said one woman who embezzled $100,000 from her company.

Several of the young people took the drugs to escape the pain of their parents’ divorce or neglect, but some were from solid families and made bad choices because they were young, dumb and curious, as one young man says.

One girl started using after she began taking painkillers for TMJ, a jaw condition. The addiction was a death grip, says another woman. Others talked about spending hundreds of dollars a day on their habits.

Opiates are amazing medications, Holmes says, but “to let them fall into the hands of teenagers” is terrible, because “the reward is profound and the punishment is equally bad.”

During the panel discussion that followed the film, Vahrij Manoukian, a Hollis pharmacist and selectman, talked about how the death of his son from drugs in 2004 promoted his efforts to help the state enact a law creating a prescription drug clearinghouse of information that helps prevent “doctor shopping” by addicts.

Another member of the panel, Dr. Vasuki Nagara, a medical director at Lamprey Healthcare, said the surge in pill addiction coincided with an emphasis in the medical community on treating pain.

“Pain became the fifth vital sign,” he said.

And then, said O’Brien, “all these drugs came on the market” and “doctors felt very pressured” to prescribe them.

But what is most important, she said, is to do what Holmes did and humanize the problem.

“These are our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors,” she said.

From 8:30-10:30 a.m. Friday, April 17, CAST will be hold a community forum at Hampshire Hills, a “resource assessment,” to identify community assets that help young people avoid drugs. CAST meets the second Wednesday of each month, from 3:30-5 p.m., in the Milford Ambulance Center and everyone is welcome.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or