I will never forget the first time I got to speak to Dr. Mary Jeanne Kreek in a personal way. It was in 2013 at the national AATOD (American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence) conference in Philadelphia. It was right after she had concluded a workshop titled, “50 Year Follow-up of Methadone Treatment for Opioid Addiction,” along with Elizabeth Ducat, NP, and Brenda Ray, NP, from the Rockefeller University in New York that provided a historical overview of the evolution of methadone treatment.
I began to shake her hand, to introduce myself as a certified MAT advocate and then-director of the Tennessee and North Georgia Chapter of the National Alliance for Medication Assisted (NAMA) Recovery, and to thank her for her work. But when I told her that “Methadone treatment saved my life; your work saved my life,” she squeezed my hand tighter and pulled me closer to her.
It took a few moments before she collected her words. Tears began to roll down her face. She then told me, “I have been told that by hundreds of people. It always does this to me. You are the reason I keep going.”
She held onto my hand, despite the line of people behind us waiting to meet her, as though no one else in the room mattered. She wanted to talk to—and love—the patients whose lives have been transformed by this miraculous breakthrough in science and medicine more than anything.
Like so many others, I am alive, free and thriving today thanks to the work and research of Marie Nyswander, Vincent Dole and Dr. Kreek, who recently passed away at the age of 84.
Despite harassment by the then-Bureau of Narcotics and threats from local police, Nyswander, Dole and Kreek persisted in their work. Nearly half a million Americans are now receiving treatment in opioid treatment programs because of their courage and persistence.
Recognizing that roughly one quarter of people who self-administer short-acting opioids long-term will ultimately develop opioid use disorder, Dr. Kreek spent a lifetime in the laboratory of Rockefeller University researching the biological and genetic aspects of substance use disorders. From the research and trials that led to the FDA-approval of methadone for opioid use disorder in the mid-20th century to more recent research illuminating the biological aspects of stimulant use disorders, Dr. Kreek’s work has propelled the cause of normalizing the treatment of substance use disorders in medical settings.
Over the last eight years, I came to know Dr. Kreek and consider her a mentor, a colleague and a peer. She was always eager to talk to me about the work of the MAT advocates at NAMA Recovery, and, while understanding the need for safe induction and stabilization practices, she frequently decried the continued over-regulation of methadone treatment for stable patients.
In an interview just this last October, Dr. Kreek, when asked about stigma, responded, “There have been improvements, but the stigma prevails and there are still systematic impediments to treatment. For starters, regulations overseeing methadone maintenance therapy are still bizarrely tough.”
The last time I was with Dr. Kreek was in October of 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, in Orlando, Florida. I was set to receive the Richard Lane and Robert Holden MAT Patient Advocacy Award at the national AATOD Conference, and I was able to spend some time with Dr. Kreek and Dr. Loretta Finnegan (another giant in our field) one evening.
She excitedly told me, “Zac! I am in the midst of some incredible research. I believe we are nearing a breakthrough on a medication for stimulant use disorder that can be taken safely alongside an individual’s methadone or buprenorphine!” She enthusiastically informed me about all her current research at her Laboratory on the Biology of Addictive Diseases at The Rockefeller University, and I now hold onto hope that her colleagues are continuing her work.
Generations of people whose lives are stabilized and thriving thanks to methadone treatment will ensure her memory is eternal, and her lifelong research will continue to inform us for years to come.
Soar on the wings of the eagles, Mary Jeanne. You have earned your rest.
Photograph of the author meeting Dr. Kreek courtesy of Zac Talbott