He did not expect to be helping victims of the opioid epidemic. Then came COVID-19.

Walter Frankel talks with members of his team at Clearhaven recovery center in Waltham, Massachusetts on Jan. 25, 2022.
Walter Frankel meets with colleagues at Clearhaven Recovery Center in Waltham, Massachusetts. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

More than 96,000 people in the United States die in a year from drug overdose. Two-thirds of those deaths involve opioids—primarily fentanyl, a synthetic 100 times more potent than morphine.

“Fentanyl is in almost every street drug now,” says Walter Frankel, a Northeastern graduate who last year helped open Clearhaven Recovery Center, an outpatient substance-use disorder treatment center in Waltham, Massachusetts. “It’s in pills, it’s in cocaine, it’s even in counterfeit [versions of] amphetamine pills like Adderall, which is sometimes used by students when studying. Fentanyl is so cheap and strong that it’s added to these other drugs to enhance the effects.

Walter Frankel, poses for a portrait at Clearhaven recovery center in Waltham, Massachusetts on Jan. 25, 2022.

Frankel, a Northeastern graduate, is Clearhaven’s chief financial officer. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“It’s just terrible. Two milligrams of fentanyl is enough to kill someone.”

Public discussion of the opioid crisis has waned during the COVID-19 pandemic even as overdose deaths have risen annually by 36% (as of March 2021). More than 600,000 people in North America have died from opioid overdose since 1999, and another 1.2 million are expected to succumb by 2029.

Frankel did not expect to be helping victims of the opioid epidemic. After spending 25 years in information technology, Frankel worked in human resources at Northeastern in 2019-20. During that time, he was exploring potential investments in a variety of business franchises, from waste management to corporate outings. Then COVID-19 altered everything.

“The business landscape changed completely,” says Frankel, a double Husky with an MBA to go with his undergraduate degree in economics. “Things that worked yesterday, don’t work today.”

A friend introduced him to David Hanley and James Castrucci, who had been working in the recovery industry for a decade. Frankel joined them to open Clearhaven in suburban Boston in March 2021.

As Clearhaven’s chief financial officer, Frankel oversees the business infrastructure—licensing, payroll, information technology, and so on. He also assists with family and community outreach at the facility.

“I can’t wait to get to work every day,” Frankel says. “It’s rewarding because if you can actually make a difference in someone’s life, it makes a difference in yours. Many of our participants are college-age young people 18 to 25 years old who are using opioids, including fentanyl, and it’s heartbreaking.

Frankel, shown here meeting with a colleague, assists with family and community outreach. “It makes me happy every day to be a part of this,” he says. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“Twenty-six percent of the street pills tested by the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] contain lethal amounts of fentanyl. Worse odds than Russian roulette. I see participants come into the center depressed, scared, and remorseful, and a week later they’re interacting and smiling and getting well. It makes me happy every day to be a part of this.”

Frankel credits Clearhaven’s success to its clinicians and staff, as well as the program’s combination of traditional and holistic treatments. Clearhaven engages participants in the 12-step process used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other organizations that help individuals with addictions, which Frankel says is crucial to lasting recovery.

“The average length of stay at Clearhaven is over 45 days, which is very strong for an outpatient-treatment program,” Frankel says. “We’re actually able to keep people engaged in their treatment and recovery, and that’s the goal.”

His sudden career move makes sense to Rich Trombetta, who worked with Frankel in human resources at Northeastern. 

“I believe Walter has always had an affinity for helping people,” says Trombetta, a Northeastern organizational-development consultant. “When someone would say they were going to get people together to organize a volunteer event, he would always be there.

“It’s very clear that he has the best of both worlds right now,” Trombetta says of Frankel’s new career. “He’s enjoying success from a business standpoint. But he also is extremely happy with what is generating that income and the way it’s helping people. He seems so energized by it.”

Throughout his previous careers, Frankel volunteered for a variety of charities with his son, now 23, and daughter, 21. “Volunteerism is part of what I believe in,” he says. “It makes you feel good to help somebody else.”

Frankel believes he has found his calling.

“It’s a terrible time right now,” he says of the opioid epidemic. “When the participant’s family is involved, it greatly helps with their recovery. Families need to heal, too, from the trauma of their loved one’s addiction.

“When participants realize that their life wasn’t working before, and that it’s getting better now, and they can see a brighter future—that’s when you know you’re making a difference.”

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