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John Azerolo and Brett Bramble, whose dog Domino is in his cart.
Life at 3 mph: Walkers seek to remove stigma from opioid victims
By Charles Swenson
It has been four years and 4,100 miles since Brett Bramble’s sister died. “She had just turned 28,” he said over the sound of a car horn as he walked north along Kings River Road. “To this day, I can hardly believe that my little sister Brittany died from a heroin overdose.”
Bramble is walking from Key West, Fla., to Fort Kent, Maine. The East Coast Overdose Awareness Walk has followed the East Coast Greenway and Bramble was happy to get off Highway 17. “Throughout this state, 17 has been our worst enemy,” he said.
He is walking with John Azerolo, who goes by Stick. They each push a cart with their gear. Bramble named his cart Lt. Dan when he took it on a walk from Delaware to California in 2016. Azerolo named his Rick Shaw.
With them is Domino, a Lab-mix that also accompanied Bramble on his first walk. She walks and occasionally rides in the cart that Bramble, an Atlanta resident, adapted from a dog carrier intended to be towed behind a bike.
They try to cover 100 miles a week, taking time to care for themselves and their gear and taking time to talk about the opioid crisis.
It isn’t the pace that causes Bramble to breathe hard when he talks about his sister. “Our family knew that she was using marijuana and prescription pain pills. She had a back injury, but it was recreational, too,” he said. It didn’t seem life-threatening. The family thought she could just quit with their support.
“We saw the addiction take over her brain,” Bramble said. The doctor cut back on her medication, but she knew how to get the pills. That led to “cheaper and stronger heroin,” he said. “Within a couple of months of using heroin, she was dead.” He learned that more than 100 people had died of overdoses the same day.
Bramble, now 33, also had a history of drug use. “For me, it was jail that worked,” he said. “I realized I don’t want this to be my life.” That was seven years ago, before his sister’s death.
He started his walk on the second anniversary of Brittany’s death. Awareness was the goal. He covered 3,200 miles in eight months. “Some how, some way, I realized I had stumbled into a purpose: giving hope to others,” Bramble said.
He created a nonprofit, Freedom to Grow, with the goal of raising money to start a recovery facility that will bring people together for nine months to live on a homestead, raising their own food while they get help from counselors and mentors.
Azerolo, 59, didn’t know much about the opioid crisis when he started following Bramble’s 2016 walk on social media. He sees part of the route from his home in St. Louis. He had once started a cross-country walk of his own, but had to halt after less than 400 miles. “It left quite a hole in me,” he said.
When he saw Bramble was starting another walk, he asked to join. They met in person for the first time on Jan. 26, the day before their walk began.
Leading up to the start, Azerolo discovered many of his friends had been affected by the opioid crisis and were raising grandchildren. They didn’t talk about it. “It’s the stigma,” Azerolo said. “I’m going to dedicate my efforts to all the kids who have been left motherless and fatherless by this epidemic. I carry them here. I carry them in my heart.”
“Everybody has their different roles, but it all comes from compassion and understanding,” Bramble said. “The stigma is really stopping progress.”
What he has learned along his walk is that police and judges know jail is not the solution. There needs to be more treatment facilities. “In South Carolina, we’ve seen a lack of access to Naloxone, or Narcan,” Bramble said, referring to the anti-overdose medication. “Other states have great harm-reduction coalitions where they are actually able to hand out free kits to people at risk.”
While available by prescription, he said addicts won’t get the medicine themselves. “It takes responsibility from a loved one,” Bramble said. “It should be in every first-aid kit these days.”
He doesn’t buy the argument that Narcan enables addicts. “They’re going to use either way,” he said.
And Bramble said there needs to be support for recovery. Walking, he said, “you do realize the metaphors, especially recovery. Literally one step at a time, overcoming obstacle after obstacle.”
They have each worn out two pairs of shoes and they just passed the 900-mile mark around Georgetown. They get help from people they meet along the way, and spent two nights with a family in Hagley that learned of the walk from social media.
“We call it life at 3 miles an hour. You realize that’s the way we were designed to process things,” Bramble said. “We like going slow and talking to people.”
“The kindness of strangers is overwhelming, but for me,” Azerolo said, fighting back tears, “when a grown man breaks down in your arms crying, thanking you, that’s the most memorable thing.”
Follow their footsteps: brettbramblewalks.com
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