Kim Hone-McMahan
Beacon Journal columnist

Heroin and narcotic pain medicine continue to kill.

In the past couple of weeks, there has been a “huge increase” in deaths, the Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office reports.

On just one day last week, doctors in the coroner’s office performed autopsies on four people who had overdosed, including a father and son.

Most of the deaths were caused by fentanyl, a narcotic pain medicine. While we often associate narcotic deaths with people in their late teens or early 20s, that’s not always the case. The father and son were 64 and 46. Taking a close look at last year’s statistics, the median age of death from heroin or fentanyl was 40 — with a long list of folks dying between ages 32 and 46.

I recently met with a 20-year-old who lost her mother last year to a fentanyl overdose at age 46.

The coroner’s investigation shows that the woman, who was not living with her daughter, was found on the bathroom floor. A syringe and metal spoon with burn residue were located near her body.

The woman I spoke with, who asked that her name not be used to protect her family from judgment, knew from an early age that her mother was an addict. The problem seemed to worsen after a non-drug-related death of a relative in 2014.

“She struggled all of her life,” the young woman said. “She didn’t have me until she was 26. She stopped when she was pregnant with my brother and me and then picked it back up after we were born.”

Ultimately, her parents’ marriage ended because of the addiction. She grew up with her loving father, who provided for his children.

As the years passed, the daughter attempted to form a better relationship with her mother, but Mom routinely stole the money that her daughter had earned from working.

“I made excuses for her stealing, and hid my money. When I confronted her about it … she denied it,” she said. “It was bad. My uncle bought us clothes to wear to a wedding. My mom demanded we give her the clothes so she could sell them.

“That was hard for me to swallow.”

Just before her mother’s death, the daughter had a discussion with her boyfriend about the importance of family.

“I could lose anything — but not my family. I was worried about my dad because he is getting older and works so hard,” she explained. “He told me, ‘You need to be more worried about your mom.’ A week later, she died.”

She had talked to her mother about the number of addicts dying from pain medication, and Mom agreed that it was dangerous.

You might wonder why this young woman is speaking out. It’s important to her that addicts recognize what their habits are doing to their families, and how their children might react if they die.

“I want them to ask themselves: Is that high you are getting for a few hours really worth your life?” she said, through tears. “Think about when you held your baby for the first time. Was this what you wanted for them?”

Older addicts

Last year set a record for deaths caused by narcotic pain medicine and heroin in Summit County. The examiner’s office estimated that, unofficially, about 160 people died from these drugs in 2015. That’s more than a 50 percent increase over 2014, when 102 families buried loved ones.

With the median age around 40, it begs the question: Why are so many older addicts dying? Dr. Douglas Smith, medical director of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board, offered some possibilities.

Often someone in her 40s, for example, has more aches and pains than someone half her age. Somewhere along the line, she becomes addicted to pain medicine. But because she has obligations, such as a family, she may feel a greater incentive to stop. So she tosses out the drugs and syringes. In a very short time, usually less than two weeks, the receptors in the brain return to a very sensitive level.

“Basically, when we use Percocet, for instance, we develop tolerance to the dose,” Smith said. “Then we need more. Instead of 1 milligram, maybe we have to take 2 milligrams to get the same effect.

“Two weeks later, you are back to baseline, but don’t think when starting it up again to go back to the original dosage. So you take far more than you need and it kills you. So goes heroin.”

Perhaps you’ve heard of newly released inmates who die from overdoses shortly after incarceration.

“They are used to shooting heroin, go to jail for a couple of weeks, come out and think they should use the same amount of heroin,” Smith added. “And then they die.”

So what’s the answer? It’s simple, though not practical: Don’t start.

A youth risk behavior survey given to Summit County students revealed that an alarming 4 percent of students in 2014 said they tried heroin before they graduated from high school.

That should be a wake-up call to all of us. Please talk to your youngsters, grandchildren and the neighbor kid about the epidemic. It’s up to us to make it stop.

Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or kmcmahan@thebeaconjournal.com. Find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kim.honemcmahan1.