‘Our Storied Health’ Spotlights the Overdose Epidemic

The latest installment of the Pandemic Center’s film series featured a screening and panel discussion with experts in addiction and harm reduction.

On April 3rd, Brown University’s Pandemic Center presented the third chapter of “Our Storied Health,” an ongoing collaboration with Brown Arts Ignite aimed at harnessing the power of narrative to reshape public health discourse. This latest installment confronted a pressing issue both locally and nationally: the overdose epidemic.

The focus of the evening was a screening of “Anonymous Sister,” a documentary by Emmy Award-winning director Jamie Boyle. The film provides an intimate account of her family’s struggle with opioids, offering a raw glimpse into what Boyle describes as “the deadliest man-made epidemic in United States history.”

In her opening remarks, Jennifer Nuzzo, professor of epidemiology and director of Brown’s Pandemic Center, emphasized the toll of the crisis, with opioids implicated in over 75% of the nearly 107,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021 alone. “But behind each statistic lies a human story,” she told the audience. “Tonight, we aim to shift our focus from numbers to the individuals behind them.”

Following the screening, a distinguished panel took the stage, comprising filmmakers and public health experts long engaged in tackling this issue:

Dr. Jennifer Galvin, filmmaker in residence at the Pandemic Center and co-director of "Our Storied Health," served as the moderator for the panel discussion.

“Anonymous Sister” chronicles the life of Boyle’s older sister, Jordan, once a promising young figure skater whose life was derailed by nerve damage and subsequent opioid addiction. Through Jordan and their mother Julie’s personal stories, Boyle exposes the underbelly of the crisis, including Purdue Pharma’s deceptions surrounding OxyContin and its catastrophic consequences. It lays bare the systemic failures within the medical community, broadcast media and the regulatory apparatus of the United States. The documentary also recounts endorsements from public figures like Rudy Giuliani, hired by Purdue in 2002 to manage widening public relations battles surrounding their flagship painkiller. 

“The film was motivated by a blend of activism, art and personal narrative,” Boyle said during the panel discussion. “When I began filming at 19 years old, it felt less like a choice and more of a necessity. I wanted people to see these issues as I saw them.”

“The epidemic has evolved swiftly, largely driven by the greed of the Sackler family,” Rich said. “A critical issue we found was the medical community’s hesitancy, driven by a fear of causing addiction, which ironically had led to a reluctance to treat it. Society has deeply stigmatized addiction, making it easier for individuals to access opioids rather than treatment medications like Suboxone.”

Macmadu agreed that the medical community’s reluctance to prescribe Suboxone (or the generic buprenorphine) has contributed to subsequent waves of the opioid crisis–including the fourth wave, which is marked by a surge in polysubstance use that combines opioids like fentanyl with stimulants such as methamphetamine and cocaine.

Macmadu suggested that the first wave, starting in 1996 and marked by the escalated prescribing of opioid painkillers, had an unusual twist. "Beautiful white women," like Boyle’s sister and mother, were easily prescribed opioids, while the medical industry was more likely to suspect Black Americans of abusing them. “So in a strange way,” Macmadu said, “systemic racism initially protected Black people from the ravages of addiction.”

This reprieve for Black populations was not to last, however. “Heroin is far less discerning and unaffected by racist structures,” she said. “So we saw a significant increase in opioid use among Black Americans during subsequent waves.” 

Macmadu was selected as an expert advisor for Rhode Island on the optimal allocation of opioid settlement funds from pharmaceutical companies. “We plan to invest these funds in solutions, and I’m eager to help guide these efforts in the state. With more than $100 million over the next 18 years, we intend to use a small fraction of these funds to support the country’s first state-approved opioid prevent centers. Rhode Island is pioneering this effort, and I’m thrilled that these centers are slated to open later this year."