- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - James Gregory Dickinson entered the Montana 8th Judicial District Veterans Treatment Court with nothing but an addiction to meth - no home, no job, no identification.

When he graduated from the program about 18 months later, he had a job, a place to live and access to the benefits he was entitled to as a U.S. Navy veteran. He had completed a near-perfect program, having few violations of rules or requirements.

But on March 25 Dickinson died of a heart attack after what appeared to be a relapse - only seven weeks after Veterans Treatment Court graduation, the Great Falls Tribune reported (http://gftrib.com/1SBN4N0).

“At the end of the day you’re dealing with a disease whose sole objective is to consume the host,” District Judge Greg Pinski said of addiction. Pinski is also the Veterans Court judge.

“It took the team to help get me through,” Dickinson said of the staff at the graduation ceremony on Feb. 2. “I thought I was too far gone.”

Yet less than two months later, those staff members gathered for Dickinson’s memorial service.

“What happened in those weeks? How did it fall apart?” Pinski recalls asking himself. “You can’t help but have feelings of failure.”

Pinski’s questions are valid, given the nature of drug addiction.

“Drug addiction should be treated like any other chronic illness,” the National Institute for Health, wrote on its website. “Relapse serves as a trigger for renewed intervention.”

According to the NIH, drug addiction relapse rates after treatment are lower than some other chronic illnesses such as asthma or hypertension. The NIH cites data from a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing relapse rates between 40 and 60 percent of patients who have been treated for drug addiction.

Pinski says the Veterans Court team will learn from this loss and remember their graduates are still vulnerable to relapse, no matter how well they perform in the program.

Pinski spoke at Dickinson’s April 7 memorial service at the Montana Veterans Memorial. Veterans Court Mentor Coordinator Joe Parsetich officiated and arranged the service.

“James, like all of us here today, faced a daily war,” Parsetich told the gathered crowd of Dickinson’s friends, co-workers and loved ones, “good versus evil, good choices versus bad ones.”

Dickinson died of a heart attack the morning of March 25. Some of the details of his death and its aftermath are documented in court records because one of the last people to see Dickinson alive, Tyler Meinhardt, has been charged with evidence tampering for allegedly moving Dickinson’s vehicle and taking some of his personal items before calling for help.

The charging document says a woman named Heather Winney was performing CPR on Dickinson when medical personnel arrived around 5 a.m. They continued CPR, the report says, but Dickinson passed away a short time later.

A responding Great Falls police officer described Meinhardt as showing “no emotion toward what was going on” and described Winney as “hysterical.” Meinhardt told investigators Dickinson and Winney were dating or very close friends.

Meinhardt and Winney gave inconsistent accounts of what happened, according to the report. Both changed their stories later.

Winney eventually told police she and Meinhardt saw Dickinson’s vehicle parked on the lawn with Dickinson unconscious in the driver’s seat. It was later determined the vehicle struck the front porch of a residence.

Winney reported that Meinhardt pulled Dickinson out of the car and placed his body on the ground. He moved the car and told Winney “not to say anything.” Meinhardt later admitted he pocketed Dickinson’s keys and wallet.

Police documented Winney’s statements as she was being transported to the police department for questioning. She said, “I’m sorry we lied,” and “We didn’t mean to hurt him.”

Winney indicated she, Meinhardt and Dickinson had been smoking meth together earlier.

Meinhardt and Winney, who are both on probation, tested positive for methamphetamine that day.

Pinski mentioned in his remarks at the service that people who treat addiction sometimes see “seemingly impossible cases with miracle outcomes” and “easy cases with tragic ones.”

Dickinson’s case was the latter.

“We have to be willing to accept the tragic outcomes along with the successful ones,” Pinski said.

The NIH notes that treating chronic diseases, whether it’s heart disease, diabetes or drug addiction, involves changing well-established habits and behaviors, “and relapse does not mean treatment has failed.”

That means the “miracle” cases are vulnerable to relapse, too.

“Even when your life is better than it has ever been,” Pinski said. “The true test is - can you do it by yourself for the rest of your life?”

Treatment is about improving someone’s life. Veterans Treatment Court is a prison alternative. The goal is to build a productive member of society by the end of the program.

Pinski says Dickinson would have most likely ended up right back on the streets if he had been incarcerated for drug possession rather than entering Veterans Court.

“For the last two years he had an impact on the community, and he had an impact on himself,” Pinski said.

Dickinson’s good work earned him a promotion and prompted his employer to hire another Veterans Court participant to fill his job.

One of Dickinson’s co-workers spoke at the memorial service.

“To us, James was one of the most kind, compassionate and caring hearts,” she said, explaining that most of Dickinson’s co-workers were not aware of his struggle with addiction.

“Despite the best treatment, death is still an outcome of addiction,” Pinski said after the service.

One relapse is all it takes. One last time can be the last time.

“James would not want his death to be viewed as a failure,” Pinski told the group at the memorial, “and it was not one. . He reclaimed his life, but it was too short. Two years - he deserved more.”

___

Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com

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