Rex Butler has spent three decades worrying about workers’ safety—the climbing and the crouching, the lifting and the loading, the hazardous materials and the heavy machinery. First with the Air Force, then in a factory, and for the last 18 years at an Iowa G&T, he’s devoted his adult life to keeping workers out of harm’s way.
Since 2008, Butler has added another urgent health concern: the dangers of opioids and prescription pain medicine.
As an early volunteer in the National Safety Council (NSC) Survivor Advocacy Program for Prescription Opioids, he speaks movingly about the heavy toll these medications and related drugs take on society.
Because in Butler’s case, his family has suffered that toll.
His younger brother, Bill, was just 33 when an unintentional overdose took his life in 2006. Suffering from intense back pain that his previous medication could no longer ease, Bill obtained a phoned-in prescription for methadone, often used to wean addicts off heroin. Unaware of its potency, he took it as he would have the other painkiller. And he died.
Rex Butler was devastated by the loss of his brother, three years his junior. He’d joined Cedar Rapids-based
Central Iowa Power Cooperative (CIPCO) as a safety & environmental coordinator five years earlier, eager to return to Iowa and live near his brother and their two sisters.
The four siblings had had “a bit of a rough upbringing,” Butler says. They were children of divorce and spent a couple of years in foster care with separate families. Family gatherings were all the more important after Butler returned to Iowa.
“Bill was shy outside of the family,” says Butler, now CIPCO’s safety & environmental manager. “He was sensitive but had a wonderful sense of humor. He would laugh at his own jokes, and we’d laugh along with him. But it was really just laughing at his laughter.
“I lived hundreds of miles away from him for years. But then my CIPCO job opportunity presented itself, and I was so excited about going to Iowa Hawkeyes football games … with him. But in less than five years he was gone. I feel like I lost so many bonding opportunities with him that I never really got to experience. And it’s tough to think about.”
In 2008, Butler was serving as president of the board of the Iowa-Illinois Safety Council (IISC), the two-state local chapter of the NSC. His peers encouraged him to join the council’s opioid survivors advocacy group.
“The NSC recruits people who would serve as good advocates,” he says. “Recovering addicts, people who’ve lost family members, people currently involved in drug or alcohol advocacy. I eventually became very much involved.”
His G&T strongly supported the idea too.
“CIPCO has taken a role in disseminating information about the epidemic in newsletters and other articles, as well as supporting my advocacy efforts,” Butler says. “I’m very fortunate to be working for a company that walks the talk of standing for safety inside and outside of the company. They are committed to that in so many different ways.”
Participation in the program begins with a two-day training session. Butler’s group was led by John Capecci, an author and instructor who got Butler’s permission to use some of his quotes and experiences for the third edition of his book, Living Proof.
“I also had the pleasure of meeting about 15 other people with incredible stories to tell,” Butler says. “The key is sticking to the story you have to share and not getting sidetracked.”
Since then, Butler has been giving presentations to groups and institutions about six times a year, using his story of loss to underline the importance of addressing a prescription opioid epidemic that killed 47,600 Americans in 2018. Tragically, Butler finds good news in that figure; the year before saw a record 49,000 deaths.
“So, have we made progress?” Butler asks. “Certainly. But we have to stay on top of this to keep pushing those death rates down, because they are still unreasonably high. At my presentations, I like to get a show of hands from attendees whose life has somehow been impacted negatively by the opioid epidemic. It never fails that about half raise their hands.”
Working on the advocacy program, Butler has met and worked with some dedicated public servants. Last fall, he was on the dais at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, NSC President & CEO Lorraine Martin, and other top national and business officials when they released the NSC’s new Opioids at Work Employer Toolkit.
He’s attended meetings on the crisis with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, and he appears at events organized by the former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, Kevin Techau. He has befriended Tracey Helton, whose struggles with heroin addiction were featured in the 2000 HBO documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street.
And in the fall of 2018, Butler joined U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for a press conference in Houston to showcase the NSC’s heartbreaking “Prescribed to Death” exhibit, a traveling wall of pills inscribed with the names and faces of people lost to misuse or mistake. One of those pills bears the likeness of Bill Butler.
“That was the first time I saw it in person,” Butler says. “It is very moving, more so because the pill with Bill’s name on it … actually looked like him, which was pretty heavy. That experience, being there and seeing all these white pills and all these faces representing their deaths, it’s actually more impactful.”
Butler says his role as a storyteller and advocate in the NSC opioid survivor program give him a measure of comfort.
“I’ve spoken a lot, I’ve talked to a lot of people. Just statistically, I’ve got to think I’ve helped one or two people. And my brother’s death contributed to those people still being here. When I think about it, it kind of makes Bill’s death worth more.
“He didn’t die in vain.”