Media Award Winner Focuses on Prescription Drug Addiction

The Hungry Heart follows the story of Fred Holmes, MD, (right) seen with patient Dustin Machia.

The Hungry Heart follows the story of Fred Holmes, MD, (right) seen with patient Dustin Machia.

The Hungry Heart, a movie about patients struggling with prescription drug addiction seen from the perspective of a Vermont pediatrician, will receive ASAM’s 2015 Media Award at the ASAM Annual Awards Luncheon. The movie, with a discussion following, screens Saturday during ASAM Movie Night, at 8 pm in Governor’s Ballroom E, Fourth Floor.

Made by Vermont filmmaker Bess O’Brien and Kingdom County Productions, the film follows Fred Holmes, MD, who collected the stories of his patients with the assistance of one of those patients, Katie Tanner.

“They wanted to do a project highlighting the stories of these folks. They wanted to humanize them and break the stereotype of who these kids were,” said O’Brien, who directed the film. People who go through recovery and hit bottom, who go through the eye of the needle and come out the other end, are truly wise and amazing folks. It’s been an honor to be part of their lives and tell their stories.”

The movie, released in late 2013, had such an impact in his state that Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin focused his entire State of the State Address in January 2014 on prescription drug addiction, and he referenced the film several times in the address.

Bess O'Brien

Bess O’Brien

“It was amazing. It was a big deal because no governor had ever focused his State of the State on one issue, or on prescription drugs and opiate addiction,” O’Brien said. “The next day, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CBS, NBC, Al Jazeera, etc. were focused on Vermont. The idea that the governor in the beautiful state of Vermont was talking about us having a problem was a shock to the system. He pushed the issue nationally.”

Since then, The Hungry Heart has moved from being a regional film to a national statement playing from Alaska to Arkansas to New York. A related educational package has been distributed around the world, she said.

“It is a wonderful way of putting a human face on this issue. The film continues to be booked all over the place, from small towns to cities,” O’Brien said, adding that those wanting to show the movie or have her speak at a showing can visit the Hungry Heart website.

O’Brien has a background in theater and is married to a filmmaker, so she fell into filmmaking more than 20 years ago. She has produced a variety of topical films in Vermont, where she lives, covering subjects such as misuse of opiates, domestic violence, and teenagers. Her next film will be about body image and eating disorders.

“This film came to me through Fred,” she said. “This is just one of many films. I don’t have any direct connection in my family to addiction in that way. I like revealing human stories around particular issues that are a hot topic and sometimes seen only through the eyes of sensationalism or public safety. The Hungry Heart is an intimate look at people struggling with addiction on a daily basis in their lives.

“I am interested in human stories and people’s vulnerability and going straight to the source. I like to hear from the people who are in the trenches. It fascinates me.”

ASAM’s Media Award is presented annually for excellence in print or electronic journalism. This Award is bestowed for a newspaper, magazine, television, radio or website story, column, or program that improves the public’s understanding of addiction, addiction treatment, recovery, or the profession of addiction medicine. A full listing of past award winners is available on ASAM’s website.