With a huge assist, Port Health sets up shop in Hatteras
An orange and yellow surfboard hangs against the wall of Port Health’s Hatteras Village office that officially opened on Jan. 16 along N.C. 12, just a few miles north of where the road ends at the ferry terminal. A few feet away is a plaque dedicating the facility to Cory Stowe Sisler.
Both are powerful reminders of the toll that drug addiction has taken here on an island where treatment for those struggling with mental illness and substance abuse often requires a more than hour-long drive up the beach to Port Health’s Nags Head office.
On the back of the surfboard are the spray-painted words, “RIP Chaps,” written by Cory Sisler when local resident John “Chaps” Gray died of a heroin overdose in 2004 at the age of 19. The board remained among friends until surfacing 13 years later, when Sisler himself died of an overdose after a long struggle with addiction.
“It’s oddly and tragically circular,” notes Cory’s brother, Harley Sisler, of the message on the surfboard and the prevalence of addiction on the island. And Cory’s mother, Wendy Stowe Sisler, is hopeful that the new Port Health office will remove some of the obstacles local residents face when seeking treatment, including the lengthy commute to receive services.
In fact, she’s raised more than $30,000 since Cory passed away, and continues to seek donations in an effort to support island residents receiving Port Health services, as well as help finance the renovation, opening and continuing needs of the Hatteras Village office.
Without Wendy’s efforts to raise money and build support within the community, Port Health Program Supervisor Michelle Hawbaker said, its presence in Hatteras Village wouldn’t have been possible.
“They’ve done much more than raise money,” Hawbaker said. “They so trusted in that community and Wendy worked tirelessly.”
After Cory died, in lieu of flowers, the family sought donations for Port Health’s Hatteras clients. Not long after that, Wendy posted a plea on Facebook asking for contributions. The post generated a huge response, Wendy said, and it didn’t take long before work was being done to renovate the building.
Wendy said she decided to raise money for Port Health because of the care Cory received at the Nags Head office and from Hawbaker. But she acknowledged the hurdle of traveling for treatment — sometimes as often as a few times a week.
“You couldn’t work, you could not have a job and commit to your sobriety,” she declared.
“You’ve got two options,” Harley Sisler added. “You can call in sick and blow off work. And how many times can you do that before you get fired? Or you can tell your boss you are a drug addict and need to go up the beach to receive therapy or [medication].”
Prior to last week’s opening, Port Health operated once a week in a limited capacity in Frisco. But the Sislers, along with others on the island, agree that there is a dire need for the stand-alone facility on Hatteras Island.
Now 35, and living in New York, Harley Sisler acknowledges that addiction is a significant part of life on Hatteras Island. Out of the 32 students in his high school class, he can think of three off the top of his head who have died of an overdose.
“I don’t know what the national statistics are…but just my little sample size, that’s ten percent of the people I went to high school with. That is a startling percentage,” he said. “If it’s not Cory and the Sislers, it’s [another family]. Whether it’s their story or ours, everyone can relate.”
Located in the former Hatteras Village Medical Center, Port Health is leasing the space from the county and will offer individual and group counseling, psychiatric evaluations and medication monitoring via telemedicine, as well as suboxone-assisted treatment, according to Hawbaker.
Now open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Hawbaker expects to expand those hours and services to eventually include the same programs offered at Nags Head’s Port Health location, including the substance abuse intensive out-treatment program. Until then, Port plans to use some of the donation money to help with transportation and gas costs. The new office will also host community activities and groups as well.
For her part, Wendy said she’s just hopeful people suffering from addiction on the island will utilize the new facility — and that the stigma surrounding the disease is beginning to fade locally.
“It makes it harder to support a place like this if people aren’t acknowledging” the problem, Wendy said. But she and Harley are optimistic there has been a shift within the community.
“I think in the time since Cory’s passing, [the stigma] has changed tremendously,” Harley notes. “It feels like a real community is rallying around this.”
As for Chaps’ surfboard displayed just outside the waiting room, Wendy says she hopes it becomes filled with the names of clients as they celebrate their first year of sobriety.