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Mothers struggling with addiction find an oasis in Southern Oregon

Karissa Camarillo works with mothers at Oasis Center of the Rogue Valley in Medford.
Justin Higginbottom
Karissa Camarillo works with mothers at Oasis Center of the Rogue Valley in Medford.

The opioid epidemic, boosted by the arrival of the drug fentanyl, has torn through communities in Southern Oregon. It’s also having a devastating impact on mothers struggling with addiction. An innovative facility in the Rogue Valley is helping those parents and their children.

When Karissa Camarillo became pregnant she was living in a tent behind a supermarket in Medford, addicted to the synthetic opioid fentanyl. She used up until the time she went into labor at a local hospital.

“I did not want my baby. I wanted to leave. I hated myself. I didn't care. And then Kerri came in and gave me a little bit of hope,” says Camarillo. 

She’s referring to the medical director for Oasis Center of the Rogue Valley, Dr. Kerri Hecox. Oasis specializes in treating parents and those who are pregnant for substance use disorders.

Hecox was at the end of Camarillo’s hospital bed when she woke up. She convinced Camarillo to enter Oasis’ program.

“I got support. I got counseling. I got forgiveness and respect, self-esteem. They helped me with everything because when I came here I was nothing,” Camarillo says. “And now I am who I am. And I'm so proud of it. And I'm so thankful for them.”

Camarillo’s been clean for two and a half years now. She kept her baby.

Dr. Hecox says a clinic like this for mothers is unique. First, it doesn’t just treat someone for addiction. It also helps with the myriad of other issues they may be facing like legal trouble and food insecurity. There’s even a preschool here.

“We are coordinating all of these different pieces for families because if one of these isn't there the family isn't successful,” says Hecox.

Medical director Kerri Hecox and executive director Kristen Johnson are seen at Oasis Center of the Rogue Valley in Medford.
Justin Higginbottom
Medical director Kerri Hecox and executive director Kristen Johnson are seen at Oasis Center of the Rogue Valley in Medford.

Oasis is located in a low building by a busy freeway in downtown Medford. Inside, it lives up to its name. In its lobby is a fridge with fresh produce. There’s an area with bright carpet and toys for children. Through a gate around the back of the building is a shaded row of apartments for those that need housing.

“We've had probably at this point 60 people who've come through emergency lodging and 85% of them have gone on to residential treatment. So really, actually very good success rates,” says Hecox.

Another unique aspect of Oasis is that it offers long-term assistance. Hecox says that’s important, after all, because addiction is a long-term struggle. The center has been open for five and a half years. But Hecox says she’s seen some patients for a decade, beginning before Oasis opened, allowing her to watch their children grow up.

Rebecca Stone, with the non-profit Justice System Partners based in Massachusetts, says the intersection of substance use and parenting has only recently started gaining widespread attention.

Opioid-related overdoses are now a leading cause of death for those who are pregnant or those that have recently given birth.

Stone says one problem faced by that population is access to care.

“We don't have enough treatment options for the population in need as is. There are even fewer that will take a pregnant person or allow someone to stay there with their children,” says Stone.

Another barrier, she says, is the stigma of fighting addiction while pregnant.

“This sense of shame and the sense that you might be discriminated against, the sense that you are going to get into trouble for seeking help is huge,” she says.

Many fear if they enter treatment they will have their child taken away. But Dr. Hecox at Oasis says her clinic works with child protective services and no parent that has wanted to keep their child and who has entered treatment has lost parental rights.

Some might find it incredible that individuals would use drugs while pregnant. But, according to those struggling with addiction, that’s underestimating how powerful these drugs are — especially fentanyl. Hecox says it’s changed everything.

Daphne, a patient at Oasis who wants to just use her first name, used fentanyl while she was pregnant. She’s sober now and her healthy, five-month old son is sitting on her lap.

“You want so desperately to quit. You want your baby to come out healthy and not have to go through the withdrawals and the detox. But addiction is so cunning and it wraps ahold of you,” says Daphne. “No matter how bad you want to quit, it just won't let you.”

Karissa Camarillo, who met Dr. Hecox after giving birth, is wearing scrubs today, sitting in an office at Oasis. After becoming sober, she was hired by the center to work with other mothers.

“I love being able to see somebody come in who is like a spitting image of me. Somebody that had no hope and no love for themselves just bloom into this wonderful, beautiful person,” says Camarillo.

Having a parent using drugs greatly increases the risk their child will also struggle with addiction. Camarillo’s whole family joined the effort to save her child.

“My dad got sober for me. Same with my mother. They're all clean and sober now. We all did it as a whole family,” she says.

That means the staff at Oasis aren’t only helping those that walk through their doors — they’re helping their children. Their victories can’t be counted by individual cases but by generations.

Justin Higginbottom is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. He's worked in print and radio journalism in Utah as well as abroad with stints in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He spent a year reporting on the Myanmar civil war and has contributed to NPR, CNBC and Deutsche Welle (Germany’s public media organization).