Netflix Doc 'Heroin(e)' Follows 3 Women Fighting West Virginia's Opioid Crisis

By Kelly Burch 09/19/17

The short documentary profiles a street missionary, a judge and a fire chief who are doing everything they can to fight the opioid crisis. 

Jan Rader responding to an emergency call.
Jan Rader (pictured above) is one of the heroines chronicled in the new documentary. Photo via YouTube

A new Netflix documentary short entitled Heroin(e) follows a female fire chief and other women in West Virginia, a state at the heart of the opioid epidemic, as they try to save lives and change their community. 

The documentary, which has a run time of just under 40 minutes, was directed by 29-year-old Elaine McMillion Sheldon (who hails from West Virginia) with support from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Sheldon said that, like many people in the rural state, she has been personally affected by heroin and opioid addiction. 

“I’ve lost friends. I have friends and classmates that are in prison, in recovery, in rehab, still addicted,” she told Mother Jones. “It’s just an issue I couldn’t ignore any longer.”

The film deals with the issue of "compassion fatigue," which is common among first responders who revive the same individuals over and over again without people getting the help they need. Jan Rader, the fire chief in Huntington, West Virginia and one of the film's subjects, pushes her force to keep in touch with the fact that they are saving lives. 

"When you add hopelessness and unemployment and lack of education on top of all that, it's kind of like a recipe for disaster," Rader says during a ride-along in the documentary. "I fear that we've lost a couple generations, not just one generation. I fear that we've lost more than that."

Many members of the fire and rescue squad have become hardened to the situation. “There’s a lot of PTSD associated with the fact that they are sometimes reviving the same person three to four times in a month,” Sheldon said. 

Sheldon has kind words to say about Rader and her work ethic. “She’s an incredibly caring and energetic and driven and empathetic person," she shared. "She is responsible for making sure all the men on the fire department stay empathetic, which is a challenge in this situation.”

West Virginia has some of the most striking overdose rates in the country. According to Heroin(e), the overdose death rate in the state is 10 times the national average, but Sheldon chose not to focus on statistics. Instead she wanted to show how the lives of women on the front lines, including Rader, Judge Patricia Keller, and Necia Freeman—a street missionary who provides services to opioid users—are affected. 

“We really wanted it to feel like you were moving from place to place with these women, and you’re getting a sense of their daily grind,” she said. “And I think just observing people doing their work, and sometimes failing, not always succeeding, is an important thing to show.” 

During one scene in the film, a woman overdoses in a gas station while other people continue to check out. “That’s how normal it’s become,” Sheldon said. 

Despite that, she hopes that the film will help people, including her parents, have compassion for those struggling with addiction. 

“[My parents] had a very negative feeling toward drug users, because they’ve had people—their friends—impacted, whether it’s been things stolen or break-ins that actually injured people,” she said. “Now, the difference is they see it as, does that person need help? Potentially that person doesn’t want to be in the situation they’re in.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.