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Woman hikes Appalachian trail to honor memory of late fiance, raise awareness about opioids

Brandon Paykamian • May 1, 2018 at 7:05 PM

After the tragedy of losing a loved one to opioid addiction, a Colorado woman found a mission in life — raising awareness about the opioid epidemic and those working to fight it.

In September, Heather Starbuck’s fiance, Matt Adams, died from an opioid overdose. After his death, she made plans to hike the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine to encourage dialogue about opioid recovery.

She departed from Georgia’s Amicalola Falls State Park on March 24, and on Monday afternoon, she arrived in Erwin before continuing north to Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park.

“My main mission is to share his story and let people know this epidemic is taking away beautiful people and it needs to stop,” Starbuck said during her stop in Northeast Tennessee. “There is still a stigma and a sense of shame that shouldn’t exist because it’s a disease. We are losing a lot of really amazing people (like Adams).”

Starbuck said she wanted to share Adams’ story and hear the stories of others who have experienced similar hardships and loss in the midst of the opioid epidemic.

“I’ve been encountering the pervasiveness of the epidemic. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have lost someone, are in recovery themselves or have worked with people in recovery,” Starbuck said. “They all come with the same stories, same pain and same tragedies.

“I’m really trying to connect (with people) here because this is ground zero, and what we’re seeing here is what could probably happen more in other states soon.”

Adams, a Fayetteville, Arkansas, native, had been struggling with substance abuse since high school. This escalated when he was introduced to opioids from a prescription after an injury, Starbuck said. After finishing his prescription, the pain remained, and the young Adams took to heroin.

Through six years of opioid abuse, he managed to hide his addiction from friends and family before checking into a six-month rehab program in Oklahoma. Starbuck said Adams tried to help others while he was sober after relocating to Boulder, Colorado, where he met Starbuck.

But Adams’ addiction eventually resurfaced once again in 2017. On Sept. 10, he was admitted to the ICU at Boulder Community Hospital for a heroin overdose, where he died two days later at the age of 30.

“In the weeks after his passing, I felt very alone and misunderstood,” she said. “Now, I’m able to connect with people out here and realize we are not alone.”

In each new town she passes through along her journey, Starbuck visits others affected by the crisis, various rehabilitation centers, medical professionals and others working to combat the epidemic, documenting her experiences along the way.

Through this journey, Starbuck aims to amplify the voices of others who have also experienced the pain caused by the opioid crisis, and in each new town, she has distributed Adams’ signature “purple bandana,” which she said represents a symbol of solidarity for those on the tumultuous road to recovery.

Starbuck said the Matt Adams Foundation for Opioid Recovery was recently founded when people asked how to contribute to this project.

“All of this came together at once,” she said. “We — myself and his family — created the foundation, which will help fund grants for those seeking transitional programs and rehabilitative services in their road to recovery.”

To learn more about Starbuck’s Matt’s Purple Bandana Walk for Opioid Recovery and the Matt Adams Foundation for Opioid Recovery, visit www.mattspurplebandana.org.

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