Dr. Mary Dowd was a Yarmouth family doctor until several years ago, when she started moonlighting in primary care for prisoners at the Cumberland County Jail.

She saw that most of the people in jail were there because of substance abuse.

“I became fascinated by addiction. It was in my face every time I was there,” Dowd said.

Intrigued and motivated to help others, Dowd left her family practice, and in 2008 started working in the detoxification center at the Milestone Foundation on India Street in Portland. She now also works for Catholic Charities in its substance abuse treatment program and at Discovery House in South Portland, a methadone clinic.

Dowd also has become an advocate for treatment as the state grapples with a heroin crisis. Heroin overdose deaths in Maine and the number of people seeking drug treatment have surged since 2012, but treatment options have shrunk, according to state health statistics. Heroin deaths increased from 34 in 2013 to 57 in 2014, with 2015 on track to surpass last year’s numbers. Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook closed this summer, as did a treatment center in Sanford.

For an organization like the Milestone Foundation, which is mainly a short-term detox center that also has a small long-term treatment program in Old Orchard Beach, having fewer places to refer people for treatment makes the situation even more difficult. There are far more patients than available treatment options.

“We’re needed now more than ever, but some people we have to turn away, and that’s very, very sad,” Dowd said. “People just want to be treated with basic human kindness, because they have so little of that in their lives.”

Dowd, 64, of Yarmouth, is a Massachusetts native who moved to Maine in the 1980s.

“I like to think about things I don’t understand. Since there’s many things we don’t understand about the brain and addiction, there’s lots to think about,” said Dowd, who is married with four adult children.

Lauren Wert, nurse manager at the Milestone Foundation, said Dowd is a vital part of the detox center’s operation.

“She’s quiet and listens and wants to be here. She can really connect with the patients,” Wert said.

Dowd said she may treat people as they are going through withdrawal, but most of what she does is listen to people’s stories and help them connect with treatment or housing or help them think of strategies to improve their lives.

Also a writer who has penned op-eds for the Press Herald, Dowd wrote a poem called “Composite,” in which she described the people who seek treatment at the detox center. The following is an excerpt:

“She is 24, full lips, green eyes

red gold hair, tall and slim and silent.

Her arms are covered,

like a sleeve tattoo,

in a swirling dance of scabs and scars.

Rust brown puncture wounds

snake round and round.”

The poem’s ending line challenges people to recognize how addiction can affect anyone.

“He is your son.

She is your daughter.

What now?”

– Joe Lawlor

Read all of our profiles of Mainers to be thankful for in 2015.

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