A grieving father helped develop a new Anchorage curriculum on the dangers of opioids

John Green stands outside a building in Wasilla. Green lost his daughter Kellsie Green in 2016 due to complications of withdrawal from opioids in jail. He is committed to honoring her memory in part by creating a curriculum that teaches kids accurate information about addiction and withdrawal–something Kellsie didn’t have. A curriculum dedicated to Kellsie will be taught this year in as many as 20 middle and high schools in the Anchorage School District. (Rachel Cassandra/ Alaska Public Media)

John Green knew his daughter was in trouble. Kellsie Green had survived two sexual assaults as an adolescent and he said she started self-medicating with Oxycontin pills in 2011. That ultimately turned into a heroin addiction. 

“There’s no parent that plans for when their child becomes an addict,” said Green. “We didn’t understand about detox…didn’t know what questions to ask. So we sent her to a rehab outside and within a couple of days, once she started getting dope sick, she walked out.”

Kellsie continued to struggle with her addiction, but she dreamed of a life beyond it. She told Green she wanted to write a book and visit schools to tell her story after her recovery. She wanted to explain what addiction and withdrawal really felt like. She hoped she could stop even one person from going down a path of addiction. But a couple months after that conversation, in 2016, when she was 24 years old, Kellsie was arrested. She died in jail of complications from withdrawal, in a cell by herself. 

“When they came and checked on her in the morning, she was naked underneath the call button, stuck in a position with her hand up where she couldn’t reach the call button,” said Green.

Kellsie Green during her graduation from the Alaska Military Youth Academy. She died about 8 years later, when she was 24 years old, from complications of withdrawing from an opioid addiction in jail. Her father has organized to develop a drug education curriculum for local schools that teaches about addiction, withdrawal, and the risks of fentanyl. (Photo courtesy of John Green)

Kellsie died from dehydration, a common but treatable complication from withdrawing from opioids. Green said she lost 20 pounds of fluids during the short time she was in jail. Green sued and won a wrongful death settlement against the state. 

Kellsie isn’t around to convince kids to stay away from opioids. But in 2018 Green met someone who wanted to help him tell Kellsie’s story. Michael Carson is a former teacher and chair of the Mat-Su Borough opioid task force. 

“I have been blessed,” said Carson. “I was fortunate that my children and grandchildren have escaped any kind of issues around addiction. But I felt so moved by his story that I wanted to do something.”

Carson and Green saw big holes in opioid education in Alaska. They wanted young people to have a clear understanding of the risks of drugs– beyond being told to just say ‘No.’ And because the opioid epidemic is changing so quickly, they wanted lessons that could be updated multiple times a year. 

So, with Kellsie as inspiration, Carson developed a curriculum. He’s already taught it in four schools in the Mat-Su Borough and to a group of school nurses. It could be taught in as many as twenty more Anchorage middle and high schools this year. This comes at a crucial time for the district; last spring, the district responded to 10 non-fatal drug overdoses at five different schools, several of them resulting from kids taking fentanyl. Eventually, Carson hopes to teach the lesson statewide. 

The curriculum teaches kids how addiction works and what it feels like to withdraw from opioids. It’s called “Kellsie’s Lesson.” 

Carson said the lesson educates about the science of addiction in a straightforward way using Alaska imagery. And it gives an accurate description about what withdrawal feels like. 

“I’ve heard stories from people that have gone through detox, where they said that, you know, they felt like they were possessed by aliens,” said Carson. “They felt like they were going to die.”

Carson collaborated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to follow national guidelines. And last spring, the Anchorage School Board unanimously passed a policy to include the lesson in health education for grades eight through twelve. 

Kathy Bell is director of health care services for the school district. She’s very scared about opioids in the schools and she said drug education like this is a crucial part of preventing student deaths. 

“Students are using it for experimenting,” said Bell. “And they think they’re taking maybe pain medication like Percocet. But the Percocet now is laced with fentanyl. And they’re not aware of that at all. And…it’s a very tiny amount of fentanyl that can cause death, because it causes respiratory depression.”

Kellsie’s lesson is one piece in a larger puzzle of how the school district is responding to the epidemic. They’re also distributing overdose kits and training educators on how to use them. Last spring they responded to the spate of overdoses with opioid education. Bell said it seemed to help –they didn’t have any more fentanyl incidents before school got out for the summer. And she said, the more drug education, the better. 

“Even if you say it in Sept., saying it again in Jan., it’s not gonna hurt again, because they forget or they don’t think about it,” said Bell. “And they may make a bad choice. And we don’t want anybody making that bad choice. We want everybody to be here with us on this earth.”

Green struggled for years to make sense of his daughter Kellsie’s death. He kept asking why this had to happen to Kellsie just as she had a chance to detox. Because Kellsie died in state custody and was denied life-saving care, Green said he has an obligation to share her story.   

“I realized that Kellsie could have died of an overdose at a friend’s house or on the street or whatever, nothing would have come of it, nothing would have changed,” said Green. “I could have maybe had to identify her body in a dumpster.  Because of the way she died– I had to give her a voice.”

Green and Carson are organizing around state House Bill 6, which requires the department of education to create an opioid curriculum. They’re hoping to add an amendment to make that drug education mandatory. That would mean opioid education would be required in every school in Alaska. 

RELATED: Counterfeit pills with fentanyl flood Alaska’s black market

Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her atrcassandra@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Rachel here.

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