Johnnie Easton didn't want her daughter's overdose death to be in vain.
With the official opening of a one-of-a-kind addiction stabilization unit within JFK Medical Center's north campus off 45th Street on Wednesday evening, Easton knows that many people facing the same demons as her daughter, Tasha, will be helped.
Her daughter would be proud "to know there is a place that you can come that you will not be judged. There's relief to be had inside and if you don't know the way to go, they can show you," Easton said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The unit was developed in partnership with JFK, Healthcare District of Palm Beach County and Palm Beach County. Expected to open early last year, District CEO Darcy Davis chalked up the hiccup to "regulatory hurdles" between the parties.
But relief, celebration and hope overshadowed any frustration from delays.
"This day is long and coming because it is a culmination of so many efforts," State Attorney Dave Aronberg said. "This most importantly will save lives, but it also demonstrates that Palm Beach County continues to be at the forefront in fighting the opioid epidemic."
The 10-bed unit was quiet on the evening of the celebration. Just one patient was receiving treatment at the time, but nearly 300 people have gone through the unit since it first opened its doors on Oct. 21, said Collette Cattafi, JFK's director of emergency services at JFK.
About 80 of them received further treatment through the medically assisted treatment, or MAT, program with the Health Care District of Palm Beach County.
The unit also takes walk-in patients. Cattafi said a little more than half of the patients that have gone through the unit have been taken there by ambulance, with the rest hearing about the unit through word-of-mouth.
Overall drug deaths declined in Florida between 2017 and 2018, but more people died in Palm Beach County because of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 100 times stronger than morphine, than anywhere else in the state.
The West Palm Beach Police Department reported it has investigated 33 overdoses so far this year, 11 of them deaths, which makes for a surprising increase as the department had been seeing decreases in overdoses.
Davis described the unit as "a centralized ER for overdose victims."
If fire-rescue personnel respond to an overdose call, they will take the patient directly to JFK North instead of the closest emergency room, as long as the patient isn't in immediate danger.
Once the patient is medically cleared in their emergency room, they will be taken to the addiction stabilization unit. If needed, the patient will be started on suboxone, "which takes away the cravings and helps minimize withdrawal symptoms," Davis said.
Patients typically stay in this unit between 24 and 36 hours, as ER staff trained specifically to tend to patients with addiction monitor them with the clinical opiate withdrawal scale, which measures symptoms like heart rate, perspiration, anxiety and pupil size, explained registered nurse Nina B.
"The beauty of this emergency room is that it's separate for those patients who need a little bit more time," added Dr. Belma Andric, chief medical officer of the Healthcare District of Palm Beach County.
The hospital will bill patient's insurance if they have it. The Health Care District also has a plan to cover costs for eligible patients. If a patient doesn't fit into either of these criteria, Palm Beach County has pledged $1 million to help pay for their health care, Davis said.
Once a patient is deemed stable and wants to explore long-term treatment options, medical staff will give a "warm handoff," or personal introduction, to the care provider best suited for the patient. Often, that has been the Health Care District, which is on the same campus as JFK North. At the district's clinic, patients can access primary and dental care, infectious diseases treatment and counseling.
"We're not going to just send them on the street," Andric said.
Stigmas, Easton said, are a deadly thing.
"If you're afraid to come forward because of the consequences of coming forward, you don't come forward," she said. "That prevented (Tasha) from getting help early on, and I think that would have made a big difference."
She hopes that the compassion exuding from this unit will banish any stigma.
Easton, who was the former chief of staff for Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, received warm hugs from former coworkers ahead of the ceremony.
"It's not necessarily a glamorous thing. It's not a glamorous ribbon cutting or grand opening," Easton said. "It means they're here because they care."
McKinlay—herself the daughter, step-daughter and ex-wife of people recovering from alcoholism—said she has lived experience in dealing with loved ones with addiction.
"To say that I have not been born, raised and married into and raised my children in the life of addiction and surrounded by this issue and know it personally would definitely be an understatement," she said.
But it wouldn't be until the Tasha's in 2016 inspired her that she would become "a real pain in people's posteriors" when it came to addressing the addiction crisis in Palm Beach County.
McKinlay unveiled to Easton and the standing-room only crowd a statue of an angel commissioned in Tasha's memory, to "make sure there's an angel watching over the patients that come into this facility."
"What Tasha loved ... is helping other people," McKinlay said. "As she's looking down upon us from heaven, she will be helping other people, too."