It was early last year when I first spotted an increase in the number of young menís and womenís photos appearing in death notices. On occasion, the obituaries mentioned that a son or daughter had lost a battle with addiction.
I know now that it was a way for families, even in their grief, to help others and reduce the stigma often associated with drug dependency. But at the time, I was eager to learn why people barely out of the starting gate of life were dying.
The coronerís office, I reasoned, would have the answers.
Summit County Medical Examiner Lisa Kohler and her staff explained that while heroin alone was killing people, there was something else waging a war on our streets. Fentanyl, a strong narcotic pain medicine, was being detected in many bodies of the deceased ó either alone or mixed with heroin, said toxicologist Steve Perch.
As a result, the number of obituaries continued to climb. Certainly, no one could have guessed that things would get even worse. But as this summer neared, a more potent killer arrived.
On July 4, Perch and another chemist discovered that the heroin some addicts were shooting into their veins was laced with carfentanil, a dangerous drug used to sedate large animals like elephants and buffaloes. A drug thatís 100 times stronger than fentanyl and 10,000 more potent than morphine.
ďI just couldnít believe it,Ē Perch recently lamented.
Seeking ultimate high
For the dealers, itís all about having the most sought-after drugs. Though they are now being charged with involuntary manslaughter if a client dies, most dealers donít give a damn. The almighty dollar is worth the risk.
About a year ago, I interviewed a young woman who got herself clean and is now helping others. She and her boyfriend cooked and sold meth to feed their heroin addictions. If they learned that there was a heroin batch that was killing people, they set out to find it.
While there are many who have become addicts simply because they were looking for a constant high, there are others who got hooked following a medical emergency. Perhaps they suffered a sports injury and a doctor prescribed pain medicine. But instead of a five-day supply, the doc prescribed 90 days. By the bottom of the bottle, they were addicted and couldnít get a refill. As an alternative, they sought out heroin, which was cheaper and readily available.
As for now, Ohio ó particularly Summit County ó is ground zero for heroin thatís spiked with the large animal sedative. Still, there are many who are working hard to raise awareness. More and more active and recovering addicts are showing their faces and their vulnerabilities. Something they may have been too embarrassed to do less than two years ago.
The stigma is beginning to disappear, but we have a long way to go. Those who plan rallies and sponsor walks against this killer are pushing for more services. And they arenít afraid to beg for it.
Why we should care
I know that there are plenty who canít stomach folks who canít, or wonít, resist the lure of a killer high. But there are reasons why we should be bothered.
Police, emergency medical technicians, hospitals, social agencies, counselors, recovery personnel, funeral directors, coroner staff and others are overworked and underappreciated. Their days are often filled with rescuing addicts ó or preparing them for burial.
There is plenty of hope for addicts, as you will read in the Beacon Journalís heroin series. Meanwhile, if you are like me, your heart aches most for the children, parents and lovers of users. Their days can be hell. Pleading with their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and sweethearts to stop can be routine.
During a recent discussion on my Facebook page, a friend wrote: ďI do wish the addicts could see and feel what it does to their loved ones.Ē
Jerry Craig, executive director of the Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board, replied: ďSadly, they do. That is why so many in early recovery have to come to terms with the shame and guilt. Peer support helps while in recovery. But addiction is so powerful it overwhelms every other human drive, irrespective of the consequences.
ďWe need to understand that it is a medical illness, no matter how they got there, and surrender to treatment is required.Ē
Earlier this month, a rally to raise awareness drew more than 1,000 in downtown Akron. Among the crowd was Brendon Barlow, a young boy whose mother died from a fentanyl overdose. While the group prayed and applauded, he cradled an urn containing his motherís ashes.
And so, itís because of Brendon, Rio, Miles, Karen, Janet, Jill and others that I know of who have buried a mommy, daddy, son, daughter or lover that I care.
Kim Hone-McMahan is a former columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal. Before retiring in April, McMahan wrote extensively about the heroin epidemic and its toll on the region. Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kim.honemcmahan.1