By Kelly Werthmann

DENVER (CBS4) – Colorado is dealing with a deadly fentanyl crisis. Since 2019, the state health department says deaths linked to fentanyl have jumped 260%.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, ever,” said Dr. Chad Johnston, owner of Urban Peaks Rehab in Denver.

Even with decades of experience with drugs and addiction, Johnston has never dealt with such a dangerous and deadly drug.

(credit: CBS)

“I’ve struggled myself with (addiction),” he told CBS4’s Kelly Werthmann. “Fentanyl is so, so dangerous. We’ve never dealt with an opiate like this that can kill you so easily.”

He said most of his patients – ranging from 18 to 50 years old – are addicted to fentanyl.

“It’s all fentanyl,” he said. “The drug has become so available, and it gets out of control. It’s tough to have a non-biased view of someone out there not working, doing drugs but these people — most of them — there’s a reason why they started using drugs. They’re in pain. Even the young kids. It’s depression, it’s anxiety, and we know that’s on the rise. Not only with COVID, but just in our society. We’re stressed, we’re all hurting.”

Johnston said Urban Peaks Rehab offers a place for people to come where they will not be judged or misunderstood. It’s his hope he can use his addiction past to support addicts present.

“You really see prejudice out there against addicts. So, we take the time to sit down and get to know them,” he said. “I know with my experience I can give something that they don’t normally receive, and I believe that’s compassion.”

Yet addiction cannot be treated with compassion alone. That’s why Urban Peaks Rehab also offers medicated assisted treatment, like with Suboxone.

“It keeps them out of withdrawal,” Johnston explained. “It’s a dissolvable strip – like those mint strips – you put under your tongue. Then you start tapering down as (patients) are more stable.”

(credit: CBS)

Along with required therapy, Johnston said Suboxone doesn’t make addicts quit “cold turkey,” which helps take away many addicts’ fears of withdrawal.

“We’ve had success of getting patients off fentanyl onto Suboxone, then off Suboxone and back to a normal, functioning life with no opiates in their system,” he said. “Just because you get them onto medication, there’s still a long way to go. We have to address why we’re using in the first place.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle, however, is getting people to come through is doors. That’s where Sally Gibbens comes in.

“Really I’m an abundance of resources,” she said.

More than the office administrator, Gibbens is a friendly and relatable face for patients.

“I’ve been there,” she said. “I’ve gone to multiple treatments throughout my using. I’m now in a comfortable place where I can say, ‘I am an addict, I am in recovery and I can help.’”

Whether in the office or in the community, Gibbens shows others there is no need to fear sobriety.

“Other patients and myself, we go out to the encampments and spread resources there,” she said. “We give them pamphlets, cards, Narcan.”

It’s the kind of outreach, Gibbens said, that can make all the difference in saving a life.

“I’m trying to make people comfortable in the sense that we’re not different. We just need to find the right path,” she said. “Coming here to Urban Peaks Rehab has really opened my eyes, not only with my own recovery, but with people in general. There are people that care. People that have compassion.”

It’s that compassionate approach Johnston believes can be a pivotal part of getting Colorado out of this crisis.

RELATED: Doctor Who Was Addict Warns About Fentanyl Use

“I know I can get people back to a stable, functioning life fairly quickly. We can make the difference there,” he said.

And Gibbens is living proof.

“Give yourself a chance,” she said. “Fight for yourself.”

MORE RESOURCES: Colorado Substance Abuse Prevention | Colorado Behavioral Health Resources or 211 | SAMHSA National Helpline | 1-800-662-HELP (4357) 

Kelly Werthmann