In the wake of the sudden and tragic death of one of the most iconic, influential and universally-revered musicians and performance artists of the 20th century, the world continues to scratch its proverbial head as to what the f**ck happened to Prince. But as the rumors of drug addiction and overdose fly, fans are finding the notion that someone as infallible as The Artist Formally Known As could be dependent on anything, frankly, a hard pill to swallow. However, as numerous outlets reported yesterday, Dr. Howard Kornfeld, an opioid addiction specialist who runs the Mill Valley, California-based treatment center Recovery Without Walls, has confirmed its veracity. Turns out Kornefeld was contacted by Prince’s staff the day before the Pop God died because he was experiencing a “grave medical emergency” and needed help. A plan was immediately put in place but by the next day, it was already too late.
Who is Dr. Howard Kornfeld?
This new information is not only heart breaking but it then begs the question: who is this Dr. Howard Kornfeld and what could he have done to save Prince’s life in such a short period of time? Perhaps this can be better understood by exploring his clinic, Recovery Without Walls.
Though hundreds of treatment centers are popping up all over the country in response to the rapidly growing rate of opiate-related deaths, Recovery Without Walls specializes in confidential, high-end medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opiate addiction and pain management. While facilities that administered narcotics to treat narcotic addiction used to just be low-brow methadone clinics, the pressure to just save lives has become so overwhelming that even has the US government has thrown billions into harm reduction tactics just to make it stop. So what Kornfeld offers is luxurious outpatient treatment using Suboxone in order to help people with the discomfort of withdrawals; in other words, people continue to take opiates, just not the kind that can (as far as we know) kill you.
But This Sounds Like a Good Thing
In some ways, MAT is a lot like gastric bypass surgery or the lap band; a seemingly magic fix-all that helps people battle potentially life-threatening problems without the pesky trouble these issues can often demand. And while I am sure that both of these procedures have changed (and possibly extended) many lives, health problems do not end there. In fact, if proper diet and exercise is not part of the recovery plan for those struggling with obesity, then people are often faced with just as many, if not more, issues. Similarly, MAT is a road paved with the best of intentions—to encourage more people to seek treatment for opiate addiction with the promise of no painful withdrawals, sickness or having to wait in line at a seedy methadone clinic in the heart of downtown wherever. But without a plan to wean off Suboxone, addicts remain addicts—costing the government billions for ongoing treatment (news flash, many addicts can’t afford decent health insurance, let alone expensive medication), taxing their livers with powerful narcotics, and most tragically, never getting the chance to experience full-fledged sobriety.
Partying Like It Was 2016
Though I have no hard evidence pointing to Prince having a drug problem (and am sort of in denial that this could be true), the implication of the 911 call to Kornfeld can’t be ignored. It means that at least a few people close to the Purple Rain star knew or seriously suspected that he was in trouble with opiates. And though the doctor himself wasn’t able to fly out to Minneapolis that day, he sent his son, Andrew Kornfeld, to meet with the celebrity’s staff to discuss a “life-saving mission,” which involved immediate administration of Narcan.
But when Andrew arrived, Prince was nowhere to be found—until he was, unconscious in the elevator of his own recording studio.
The Fatal Privileges of the Elite
In 12-step recovery, we often talk about addiction being the great equalizer—that we are a group of people who would normally not mix but because of our kinship in this disease we help each other, knowing that none of us is more unique than the other. Perhaps this is what is missing from the string of celebrity deaths and downward spirals of destruction that we have witnessed in the last decade. From Michael Jackson to Lindsay Lohan, there is no doubt that “special treatment” is not doing anyone any favors when it comes to addiction.
Stuart Gitlow, an addiction-medicine expert and former president of the American Association of Addiction, noted that while buprenorphine (Suboxone) is an “appropriate drug used successfully in addiction treatment,” there is no reason for someone to secretly fly across the country to administer it. A smarter move would surely have been to take Prince to an actual hospital where they could have helped him during what might have been the crucial hours between life and death.
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