Opioid Hero of the Month: October 2021

Cassandra Saucedo

Introduction
Our next Opioid Hero of the Month is Cassandra Saucedo, also known as Cassy! Cassy was an AmeriCorps VISTA who worked at SafeRxOC and has done amazing work in bridging the gap in access of care for patients with OUD across the entire Orange County.  She has done this through coordinating X-waiver trainings with providers, as well as connecting with local homeless shelters and Planned Parenthoods to close the gaps in those sectors. Cassy is an Orange County native, being born in its very own UC Irvine Medical Center, and continued with an undergraduate and Masters degree also from UC Irvine. Growing up, Cassy witnessed the effects of the opioids through family members who struggled with its use. Learning about the Opioid Epidemic, Cassy was more motivated to find out how she could mitigate its effects. In her undergrad study, she initially looked to pursue medical school as a physician to work against the epidemic. This led her towards clinical research working in the emergency department where she did work in understanding patient education on opioid prescription risks. Through her study of medical anthropology and neurobiology, Cassy learned about health disparities and fell in love with learning about neural pathways. This gave her a new perspective on addiction that she was interested in working more towards which led her to become an Americorps VISTA and an editor for The Western Journal of Emergency Medicine (WestJEM)! 

Current Work
Cassy is currently finishing her Masters in Pharmacology at UC Irvine, and has recently finished her 2 years of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA at SafeRxOC. As an AmeriCorps VISTA, Cassy has helped the county with numerous services from outreach to grant writing. She’s worked with local Naloxone distributions to expand their reach to patients in need, and has supported local substance use navigators through awarded grants she helped prepare. Cassy’s work also included research on applications that educate participants on driving under the influence, and the frequency of over prescribed opioids. Cassy’s most recent work she’s currently finishing includes a pilot study working with an Anaheim homeless shelter to provide MAT access, and bridge them to long term care at outpatient clinics. Academically, Cassy also does work in the lab and clinically to find treatments for morphine addiction. Some of the work her lab has done can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/UCI-Study! She looks to help this lab develop clinical trials for the medicinal plant they are researching.


According to Cassy, major barriers in this opioid epidemic are dethroned by the biggest threat, which is the stigma around addiction that leads to further barriers through policies and access to care. Cassy highlighted the difficulty with changing people’s perspectives and showing them the importance of treatment of the criminalization of these drugs. On the patient's side, it makes it more difficult to find physicians to bridge these patients to because the providers have a hard time getting certified to prescribe the MAT drugs that they need. Although there has been work to lower these provider barriers, there are still many physicians who are unaware of these changes.

Cassy also mentioned the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the opioid epidemic, and how there were increases in opioid use, overdoses, deaths, and especially fentanyl use. The emergence of fentanyl use was exacerbated with COVID-19 and nowadays there are trace amounts in many drugs. The pandemic made outreach more difficult when reaching out to support hospitals and clinics with their opioid use resources. However, opportunities arose with the increase of virtual channels that allowed providers to see more patients from their homes. This allowed for some clinics to increase their capacity of care, and provide more resources across the county. 

Accomplishments, Future Plans, and Shoutouts
What Cassy loved most about working at SafeRxOC was how we are tackling the Opioid Epidemic from multiple perspectives. Understanding these barriers from the patients’ side, the pharmaceutical, provider, and even the social service perspective helped us bridge patients’ to the resources that they needed, and created amazing connections with our local organizations. Cassy’s proudest accomplishments are with her work with the Salvation Army where she is hoping providers to homeless shelters to truly meet these patients where they’re at, and working with underserved youth and mentoring them in their transition towards adulthood. In the future, Cassy looks to pursue a PhD after she finishes her Masters and would like to continue her research in addiction medicine, and be able to teach at an academic institution. Cassy knew she wanted to work in lab research after some of her pharmacology, and neuroscience courses she took in college. She found a larger passion doing the nitty gritty work developing resources in the lab versus being able to distribute these resources in the clinic. In addition, her courses in pharmacology and neuroscience further motivated her towards the PhD route over going to medical school. For someone wanting to pursue something similar to hers she recommends volunteering where you can. “Regardless if you are a professional or not in another industry because all these issues are intersectional in every way, and doing what you can will make a huge difference for somebody.”  She would like to give a special shoutout to Dr. Connolly, one of the only x-waivered physicians with planned parenthood. Cassy has done amazing work in mitigating the effects of the opioid epidemic here, in her home of Orange County, and we hope to see her again in the future.

Is there an Opioid Epidemic Hero in your community in Orange County? If so, let us know at saferxoc@gmail.com!  We would love to include them in our series.