WESTFIELD, NJ — “She wanted to stop really bad. She wanted to be healthy. She just could not stop herself from going back to that house where she knew she could get heroin,” said 33-year-old Brett Bramble of his late sister Brittany, who died of a drug overdose in 2014.
Bramble and 60-year-old walking partner John “Stick” Azerolo plan to walk through Westfield on Saturday, June 9 around 9 a.m., on their second “Walk Across America” to drive awareness of the opioid epidemic. He has invited members of the community to join them on a ceremonial walk from Bovella’s Bakery to the Westfield Police Department by the entrance of Mindowaskin Park.
“He took his unspeakable pain and turned it into a beautiful crusade to help others who are also struggling,” said Bramble’s aunt and Westfield resident Traci Gleeson. “He has helped countless numbers of people along his two journeys across America. People know him. People love him. He’s truly an inspiration.”
According to a chart on Bramble’s website, opioids are responsible for more than 100 deaths a day. The website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that more than 42,000 people died from opioids in 2016 alone.
“This problem is everywhere. The stuff that is in high schools is deadly and one time can be too much,” Bramble said.
Bramble, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, began this walk on January 27 at the southern most point of the continental US in Key West, Florida and will end the walk at Point Kent, Maine.
“We see that the small, close-knit communities have the best response to the opioid crisis. Maybe not the resources, but they want to help and they are making the difference. The communities that are addressing this are making a difference and saving lives,” he said.
Bramble said that, growing up, he and his sister sustained similar childhood traumas and ran in the same crowds and they often used the same drugs when they were younger.
“I didn’t have to find a drug dealer to get high; I went to the medicine cabinet,” he said.
Bramble, who grew up skate boarding, said that a sprained ankle once scored him a prescription for Oxycodone around the age of 15.
“There was a time in my life where I knew I could go into the doctor with nothing wrong with me and I could go in there with a story and get a prescription for pain killers,” he said.
But when it came time to stop with the drugs, he said that Brittany struggled more than he did.
“I tried to set her up with a plan for success through what I thought would work, but I watched her suffer in ways that I never experienced,” he said.
Bramble believes that Brittany became hooked after being prescribed pain killers to manage back pain that came with the task of caring for her three young children.
“We didn’t think it was a deadly thing that we needed to intervene in. It just wasn’t a red flag. But now I say that the new gateway drug is the medicine cabinet,” he said.
Bramble said the entire opioid epidemic is a result of the over-prescribing of pain medication. While he understands that doctors are taught to manage pain, it’s important that they understand how addiction works, he said.
“I just think that we should be a little bit more responsible and kind of toughen up as a society. Some pain is fine and doesn’t need addictive medication to treat,” he said.
Currently he and Azerolo are averaging about 100 miles a week on their journey. If they stay on track, the two expect to be finished by mid-August.
While the two have encountered minor obstacles, including a bout of vertigo that left Azerolo side-lined for a few days, Bramble said he still wakes up in the morning feeling motivated to press on.
“Every day you’re laying on the ground with your feet in the air to get the circulation flowing. But you wake up the next morning ready to do it again,” Bramble said. “All of the obstacles and all of the challenges that we come across are really nothing — we are constantly reminded of why we need to continue this mission. We’ve not gone one day where we haven’t met someone who hasn’t lost someone due to a substance-related passing.”
The team is on Day 128.
Azerolo joined Bramble to show his support to his friends who have lost their daughters to opioids, many leaving young children behind.
“We have a whole generation of children being raised by grandparents or the state because of this epidemic. We need to provide the children with support,” Bramble said. “If a child’s mom dies of cancer, they can celebrate her as a hero. But when their mom dies of a drug overdose, there is no support, there is no one to talk to. There are no sympathetic t-shirts to wear to support her disease.”
Donations for Bramble’s mission go directly to his “Freedom To Grow” initiative. Bramble said the program will start as a community garden in Georgia, but the goal would be to build something much larger.
“I’m trying to start a farm where people, not just with addiction, but people with troubled pasts can come and work on many aspects of recovery,” said Bramble, who hopes to have counseling, mentoring and coaching available at a farm where he could host about 30 people for a full working farm season of about nine months.