Angie Gray has spent her entire career in public health nursing and says she knew long ago that West Virginia was vulnerable to many public health issues. Substance use disorder was becoming a problem in West Virginia as she advanced in her career, and its prevalence concerned her.

“Our obituaries in the paper, it was 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds, 40-year-olds, 50-year-olds. Once opioids were introduced to people, they felt normal for the first time. Until they didn’t. In the beginning, they functioned. And then, the addiction took hold, and its tentacles go everywhere. People started literally laying on my lap crying, begging me for help, and there was nowhere [to send them],” Gray says. 

Gray is a registered nurse who works in the emergency department of the Berkeley Medical Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Grey is mentioned in two well-known books depicting the real-life experience of treating addiction in Appalachia, “Dopesick” and “Raising Lazarus,” both by Beth Macy.

Registered Nurse Angie Gray. Photo: Molly Humphreys

“You take a state with poverty, low education, a lot of pain from blue-collar workers and what happens to their bodies after working all those years, and then add the highest rates of autoimmune disorder in the whole country – the perfect storm,” Gray says.

Gray says growing up in poverty means living in a constant state of stress that can be hard on a person’s mental and physical state.

During the Obama administration, the Affordable Care Act resulted in the expansion of access to affordable health insurance, which in turn, Gray says, gave more West Virginia access to addiction treatment. 

“Before the Affordable Care Act, West Virginians were getting addiction treatment unless you had $100,000 in your pocket. The Affordable Care Act changed it all to help West Virginians get access to healthcare.”

Gray says the state has come a long way when it comes to accessing necessary addiction treatment, but there is still a way to go. 

“We need to be looking at healthcare through a social lens and social determinants of health. Because that’s what clogs up the whole system if they don’t have all those other pieces, like wraparound services, affordable housing and all those things.” 

“My goal is to see West Virginia wild, wonderful, and well,” Gray says.

Healthcare is Human: Recovery Series is a podcast taking an in-depth look at individuals working in addiction treatment and recovery services in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Listen to Gray’s entire interview on Healthcare is Human here

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This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.