‘It’s so vital’: New Mat-Su facility adds detox beds in a state with few options for residential addiction treatment

WASILLAMore than five years ago, on the day her son died of a heroin overdose, Karen Malcolm-Smith vowed to help create a place where Alaskans suffering from addiction could get help when they need it most when they’re ready to embark on the often physically and emotionally grueling process of drug detoxification.

This winter, Malcolm-Smith’s vow became reality with the opening of Dylan’s Place, an eight-bed residential withdrawal management program in Wasilla named after her son, Dylan Fuhs, who died at age 25.

The program is the only residential detox option in Mat-Su and one of just a dozen residential facilities in Alaska offering help with this crucial step in the treatment and recovery process.

Withdrawing from opioids like heroin can be a dangerous and frightening experience without medical attention. There has long been a shortage of detox beds statewide, said James Savage, director of operations at Day One Center, the new facility that houses Dylan’s Place. The center is operated by True North Recovery, a nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment center based in Wasilla.

The new facility was funded in part by the sale of Fuhs’ Anchorage house.

“The day he died, I just knew — the thought crossed my mind — that the equity from his home is going to go to a withdrawal management center,” Malcolm-Smith said.

She donated the $255,000 in profits from the sale of the home to True North to help purchase the building.


The total cost for the Day One Center and Dylan’s Place was just over $1.3 million, and was also funded by donations and grants from the Mat-Su Health Foundation, the state of Alaska and the Alaska Mental Health Trust, according to Karl Soderstrom, True North Recovery’s CEO and founder.

‘Significant need’

Dylan’s Place is the only residential detox facility in Mat-Su.

Detox, also referred to as withdrawal management, is the process of clearing the chemical dependence on drugs from an addict’s system before starting additional treatment. Opiate withdrawal symptoms can include nausea, sweating, shakiness, extreme anxiety and, in more severe cases and when not medically managed, seizures and death. Residential detox is particularly valuable because it decreases the likelihood of a relapse, according to Savage.

“It’s a controlled environment,” explained Theresa Johnson, state opioid treatment authority with the Alaska Division of Behavioral Health, when asked what makes a residential detox center unique. “So they have all the safety nets in place that they need: The staff is there to help them, and see if they have any other medical or social needs that are taken care of right in that space.”

Johnson said the True North facility was the only detox treatment center in Mat-Su she was aware of, and one of just 12 residential detox facilities around the state.

There is a “significant need” for more detox beds and facilities in Alaska, a need that has been exacerbated by health care workforce shortage problems statewide, she said. “It’s so vital. You can save a life by getting people into that appropriate treatment when they need it versus having to wait,” Johnson said.

By the first week of February — just a few weeks after opening — all beds at the new center were occupied, and six people were on the waitlist, staff said.

This latest boost to the state’s treatment options comes amid a surge of overdoses in the state and nationwide. In 2021, the most recent finalized data on record, Alaska reported the largest increase in overdose deaths of any state by a significant margin, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That year, 245 Alaskans died from drug overdoses compared to 146 in 2020.

Preliminary CDC data shows little decline in overdose deaths in Alaska last year with 247 overdose deaths reported between August 2021 and 2022. The Mat-Su has long had some of the highest rates of overdoses in the state.

Advocates say that increasing the state’s detox beds has been a priority for years, and is key to preventing more overdose deaths statewide.

Savage, who is also in recovery from alcohol and substance addiction, said that the key with detox is immediate intake and prompt medical treatment. Because of the way addiction works, particularly with opioids, being put on a long waitlist — which has been the norm in Alaska until now — is ineffective and sometimes deadly.

“We’re talking about individuals where the window that they’re willing to be helped is very small,” he said.

Dylan’s Place can accept same-day walk-ins and doesn’t require potential patients to jump through hoops to get into treatment, Savage said. Many other facilities put patients on lengthy waitlists, and require doctor visits and other specialist visits before treatment.

“We have the ability to say yes, at a moment’s notice, and all of the services that somebody could and would require to engage in long-term treatment, and the next steps of their life, is here,” he said. “They don’t need to leave the building once they have decided to engage in withdrawal management.”

‘A birthplace for recovery’

The new facility, located in a light blue two-story house off a quiet side street near town, was formerly a birthing center and midwifery practice. That’s fitting, said Michael Carson with the Mat-Su Opioid Task Force.


“Now, it gets to be a birthplace for recovery,” Carson said.

Savage said True North purchased the building last spring “on a whole big leap of faith” after Malcolm-Smith’s sizeable donation, money that also helped them secure additional grant funding.

Upstairs, where patients in recovery stay until they’re stable and ready to move on, the space is decidedly non-clinical. It feels like a home, not a hospital. The decor features quiet rooms and hallways with framed pictures with inspiring quotes, blankets and comfy couches, big windows and soft touches.

Downstairs, where patients receive medical evaluations, many of the specialists who greet potential patients and complete their intake paperwork have personal experience with recovery and substance abuse, and are able “to meet them where they’re at, without judgment,” Savage said. That’s also key for someone who’s decided to get sober, he said: being met by people who understand what they’re going through and provide a path forward.

Malcolm-Smith says her advocacy has long been focused on the lack of detox beds in the state, which she says frustrated her while her son was still alive and in the years since he died in 2017 of a heroin overdose.

Fuhs became dependent on opioids after being prescribed them following a serious ATV accident as a young teenager, Malcolm-Smith said.

“The hardest part for me, even now, is reliving the moments of my son’s life where he was a vibrant and creative man of exceptional character. He was a protector. He was a boxer and a musician,” she said. “To watch him transition from this beautiful man of such high character, and then to recall how drugs hijacked his life — he was never the same.”

Savage said that until now, the detox options for Mat-Su residents hoping to get sober are limited: There’s Arctic Recovery, located within the Chris Kyle Patriots Hospital for veterans in Anchorage. There’s a Southcentral Foundation program, also in Anchorage, and Serenity House on the Kenai. And that’s about it, he said.


Savage described trying to find detox beds in recent months and years as “a logistical nightmare.”

Usually, there’d be about a two-week waitlist, which can be too long for someone who is addicted to opioids, he said.

For Malcolm-Smith’s son, two weeks of waiting for help was deadly.

Fuhs was 25 years old. He told his mom he was ready to get sober. She tried to make an appointment with a local doctor who could prescribe an opioid blocker that “essentially makes it impossible to experience the effects of the drug; it’s a psychological harm reductor,” she said.

The soonest appointment with one of the four doctors in the state who would prescribe the drug was two weeks away, she said.

“Dylan died the day before the appointment. He relapsed,” she said.

Nearly six years after her son died, Malcolm-Smith is still heartbroken by the loss. But she said that with Dylan’s Place, she’s found honor in helping save “even just one Alaskan from the incredible suffering that goes on with addiction.”

“As parents, all we want is happiness for our children,” she said. “And the one thing I always taught him was that in that all you do in life, always end well. And I think with the new Dylan’s Place, he did that.”

Support our reporting

Reporter Annie Berman is a full-time reporter for the Anchorage Daily News covering health care and public health. Her position is supported by Report for America, which is working to fill gaps in reporting across America and to place a new generation of journalists in community news organizations around the country. Report for America, funded by both private and public donors, covers up to 50% of a reporter’s salary. It’s up to Anchorage Daily News to find the other half, through local community donors, benefactors, grants or other fundraising activities.

If you would like to make a personal, tax-deductible contribution to her position, you can make a one-time donation or a recurring monthly donation via You can also donate by check, payable to “The GroundTruth Project.” Send it to Report for America/Anchorage Daily News, c/o The GroundTruth Project, 10 Guest Street, Boston, MA 02135. Please put Anchorage Daily News/Report for America in the check memo line.
• • •

Annie Berman

Annie Berman is a reporter covering health care, education and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. She previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in San Francisco before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at