One day in early February, Max Tuttleman, the 27-year-old driving force behind the storied Tuttleman Family Foundation, came across an op-ed written by former Governor Ed Rendell. Tuttleman had known Rendell since childhood, so it was with a casual “what’s Ed up to now” curiosity that he started to read.
Soon, he was on the phone with the state’s former chief executive. “I want to help,” Tuttleman said.
What had gotten him so worked up? Rendell’s Inquirer column laid out the stunning facts of our opioid crisis. How 52 percent of last year’s 44,000 drug overdoses were due to prescription drugs. How heroin addiction has nearly tripled in the last decade. (Heroin being the lower-cost alternative to prescription painkillers.) How the overdose death rate among those between 25 and 34 is more than five times higher than it was in 1999. While overdose rates among whites spiked 267 percent between 2010 and 2014—in our city, the usage rate of overdose reversal drug Naloxone (Narcan is the brand name) is 300 percent higher in Kensington than any other neighborhood—the epidemic doesn’t discriminate. In the same time span, overdose rates tripled among African-Americans, while Hispanic rates jumped 137 percent and Native American rates increased by 236 percent.
Staggering statistics. “As bad as these facts are, they don’t affect you—it’s not personal,” Rendell wrote, before noting that, “On January 16, it became personal for me and for hundreds of Philadelphians when John Decker died.”
“I didn’t know until my son died the extent of this epidemic,” says Tad Decker, vice chairman of the Cozen, O’Connor law firm. “If this were Ebola, what kind of resources would we be throwing at this?”
John Decker was the 30-year-old son of Tad Decker, the vice chairman of the Cozen, O’Connor law firm, and a Rendell friend. As Tuttleman read about John Decker, the story of a peer from a well-to-do, loving family resonated.
But the tale of John Decker also sparked something in Tuttleman for reasons much closer to home. Growing up, he watched five uncles, the offspring of Holocaust survivors, battle addiction. (Studies show an increased rate of addiction among the children of survivors.) One, Uncle Lee, a blues musician, used to pick up young Max at school in a big Cadillac and let his nephew sit on his lap and steer. He overdosed in the Tuttleman home when Max was 13.
This is about me, he thought, after Rendell introduced him to Tad Decker. Decker explained that he and his wife, Candy, though grief-stricken, had decided to speak out about their family tragedy in order to help others. John Decker didn’t fit anyone’s preconceived notion of a drug addict. He was, by many accounts, a charismatic young man who’d been a stellar student and athlete; after four knee operations, he became hooked on painkillers. “The drug took control of his life and killed him,” Tuttleman says. “I realized that could have been me or any one of my friends.”
“I didn’t know until my son died the extent of this epidemic,” Decker said. “If this were Ebola, what kind of resources would we be throwing at this?”
Tuttleman had found his latest cause. A self-described autodidact, Tuttleman attended Temple University for eight years, changing his major six times, never graduating. “I loved learning so much,” he says. He dives in on the causes that move him; among the events and causes he funds and is heavily involved in are Mural Arts, Connor Barwin’s Make The World Better Foundation, Treehouse Books, the Recycled Artist In Residency program, FringeArts and the Reading Viaduct Project. He wades into textbooks and makes himself an expert.
Wide-eyed and avid, he begins sentences with “what if” and often asks, “How do we make this happen?” In his bouncing enthusiasm, he seems a rare species, especially in this town, devoid of hidden agenda. His philanthropic philosophy comes straight from the heart: “Philanthropy is about using sentimental moments in your life and turning them into meaningful moments for other people,” he says.
So Tuttleman put his autodidact skills to use. He learned the extent of the crisis, that this moment marks Pennsylvania’s worst public health disaster since the great flu of 1918. He learned that, in a few years, annual drug fatalities are expected to surpass the 58,000 American military deaths amassed during the Vietnam War. He interviewed experts like Dr. Ted Christopher, chair of Jefferson University Hospital’s Department of Emergency Medicine. “Dr. Christopher will not give percocet for a broken arm,” Tuttleman says. “At one point in our history, people dealt with broken bones without needing opiates.” That was well before an aggressive marketing campaign by the pharmaceutical industry in the 1990s led to widely increased use.
“If I’m running a treatment program or a shelter in Kensington, I want as many of these doses as possible,” Tuttleman says. “But what I found were people who were scared of liability issues, even though you’d likely be covered by Good Samaritan laws.”
He learned that Naloxone, when administered during an overdose, reverses its effects. But he also learned that, as is so often the case when it comes to silent epidemics, there has long been little public sector preparedness; officials have been playing catch-up, as when Governor Wolf recently announced a partnership with Adapt Pharma, which sells Narcan, to supply all public high schools in the state with the drug for free. That was a good step, but how many kids were overdosing at school? Still, the more Tuttleman learned, the more frustrated he got: You mean we know that administering Naloxone during overdose counteracts it? And we aren’t making that remedy widely available to the most at-risk…why?
He heard from Delaware’s U.S. Senator Chris Coons that the Senate’s bipartisan Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act would—finally—treat drug addiction more like a disease than a crime and would include funding to get Naloxone into the hands of those most in need. But, assuming the House follows suit and passes the Senate version, that funding wouldn’t come until 2017. “I’ll take care of the gap in funding,” he told Rendell. “Why should we wait?” In Canada, Naloxone costs $15 per dose. Here, it’s $37.50. And the cost has been rising ever since the epidemic started. Still, a mere $15,000 could provide 200 doses. Saving 200 lives? Priceless.
A recent meeting was convened in City Hall: Tuttleman, Rendell, Mayor Kenney, and a handful of Kenney administration officials. Tuttleman had been prepared to foot the bill to provide Naloxone to all EMT personnel, but Philadelphia’s budget—unlike Bucks and Montgomery counties—was already covering that. Someone suggested equipping SEPTA buses with the antidote.
“No one’s overdosing on buses,” Tuttleman said. “We need to find ways to get it to people when they need it the most.”
Surely, Tuttleman thought, there must be organizations to partner with. City leaders promised to get back to him with potential partners; meantime, he started reaching out on his own, visiting clinics and churches in Kensington. “If I’m running a treatment program or a shelter in Kensington, I want as many of these doses as possible,” he says. “But what I found were people who were scared of liability issues, even though you’d likely be covered by Good Samaritan laws.”
Tuttleman watched five uncles battle addiction. One, Uncle Lee, a blues musician, would pick up young Max at school in a big Cadillac and let his nephew sit on his lap and steer. He overdosed in the Tuttleman home when Max was 13.
Which brings us to today. Tuttleman is glad to see that heroin and opioid abuse is coming out of the shadows and getting attention. But the fact remains that many of those most likely to need Narcan can’t access it when they need to. He feels like his no-brainer big idea has stalled. He’s asked about working out an arrangement with needle exchange programs, and he’s still seeking partners on the ground, experts on the front lines who are likely to get Naloxone to those in need as quickly as possible. When I told him I wanted to write about what he’s trying to do, I received this text: “What if we gave away 100 doses with the article? We could offer the opportunity for any organization to apply for a certain amount?”
Tuttleman’s father, David, has counseled him to learn to slow down, that things don’t always have to be done yesterday. So part of his sense of urgency when it comes to arming Philadelphia with Naloxone can be attributed to his entrepreneurial, “do it now” nature. But it’s also deeply connected to the Tuttleman family history. Max’s grandfather, Stanley, was lifted out of poverty by the GI Bill of Rights. He bought 20 sewing machines and started a garment factory in Quakertown. A serial entrepreneur, Stanley Tuttleman built his business into the production arm of the Limited Corporation. His grandmother, Edna, was just as bad-ass: The first female president of her class at Temple University who went on to become a naval officer and an artist. When the Tuttelmans became wealthy, they started donating to pet causes; their name started donning buildings throughout the city.
“I once asked my grandfather why he put his last name on so many buildings,” Max says. “He said, ‘I did it to show that people can come from nothing and accomplish anything in America.’”
Tuttleman isn’t interested in seeing his family name on any more buildings, but he is like his grandfather in at least one respect: He knows what he’s passionate about, and he’s passionate about acting on his passions. “In Judaism, there’s this tradition of Tzedakah,” he says. “It’s about giving to charity without expecting anything in return. That’s what I’m trying to do now with this Naloxone program.”