These days, it seems nearly impossible to read anything about addiction without hearing about the opioid epidemic. We hear it regulated to specific areas, such as California or New England. In some cases, you might specifically hear about a heroin epidemic or prescription drug epidemic. These variations may appear to indicate that the entire thing is a fabrication, but they actually indicate something much worse—as the drug problem spreads throughout the nation, it is taking on numerous forms. Each of these crises proves as difficult to solve as the last. Of course, those living in Palm Beach already understand this tragic reality.
Palm Beach County currently bears witness to an opioid crisis that continues spinning out of control. With each year, losses appear to rise. Families continue to lose loved ones, both young and old. As people from all walks of life take their last breath, they force us to remember that addiction kills indiscriminately. We never know who will fall next. The best we can do is try to fight the epidemic by spreading education and awareness to potential victims—preferably before they begin using in the first place.
Fortunately, one particularly intriguing project already attempts to do this. Accompanied by both photos and stories of the individuals taken by heroin addiction, Generation Heroin reminds us that addicts are not the walking stereotypes we see on television. They live, feel, and affect the lives of those around them. Those who stigmatize substance use disorders may do well to remember this. Generation Heroin and the responses to it definitely warrant further discussion. Before we get to that, however, let’s discuss the details of the rising drug problem in Palm Beach.
The Drug Problem in Palm Beach
In 2015, the medical examiner’s office counted 332 deaths by drug overdose. Of these deaths, 216 (65%) involved heroin abuse. Unfortunately, the problem did not stop there. In fact, the problem skyrocketed so badly in 2016 that the medical examiner could not keep up. The office stopped performing autopsies on certain bodies as a result. These included the victims of car crashes and suicides, as well as those who passed away in hospital care. Many of these might have been drug-related, but the office simply lacked the manpower to thoroughly investigate them all. They were completely overwhelmed.
Despite this problem, which stands in the way of perfectly accurate numbers, estimates still exist. When interviewed by Palm Beach Post, medical examiner Michael Bell reported expectations that heroin-related overdose deaths would rise by upward of 30%. Fortunately, by late August, heroin only took 14 lives in Palm Beach County. But overdoses in general still climbed at an exhausting rate. In fact, they rose by at least 75% over the rates experienced in the year before. During the last three quarters of 2015, Palm Beach County firefighters responded to 711 overdoses. But from January to August of 2016, they responded to 1,246 of them.
The discrepancy between rising overdose rates and a lowered death toll may strike some as odd. This, however, is not without explanation. By 2016, first responders at Palm Beach County Fire Rescue were equipped with naloxone. This miraculous overdose reversal drug enabled them to save the lives of many overdose victims they encountered. But while this miracle drug may allow the men and women of fire rescue to save lives, the crisis continues. And as overdose rates continue rising, lives will continue to slip through the cracks. Compounding this problem is the rise of another drug: fentanyl.
In October of 2016, Boynton Beach police and paramedics responded to five overdoses. This was the most the city had ever encountered in one night. One of these men died despite the use of Narcan (naloxone); another died before professionals could even administer the drug. The latter victim appeared to have been using fentanyl in addition to heroin. Not only does fentanyl increase the risk of overdose, but it may even complicate efforts to revive victims with naloxone. Of the 216 overdose deaths that Palm Beach reported in 2015, more than 100 of them involved fentanyl. This dangerously potent synthetic opioid therefore accounts for nearly half of the lives lost in that county.
Telling the Victims’ Stories
There is at least one saving grace to the number of victims taken in Palm Beach—they won’t be forgotten. In 2016, Palm Beach Post ran a 12-page special feature on the previous year’s victims. Their front page was a wall of photos, each depicting one of the victims. A few photos remain absent, blank silhouettes taking their place. For the most part, however, families proved willing to help make the feature a reality. Throughout the rest of the feature, each victim received a short obituary, describing their life in short yet heart-wrenching detail.
One can explore these stories easily online, clicking on each photo to see the accompanying obituary. While short, these passages describe the victims’ lives with friends, family members, and even their dogs. We learn about their hobbies, and about how some of them overcame previous struggles with addiction. Some remained sober for years before police found them deceased with only a single injection mark. Many were even preparing to enter treatment, presumably just using one last time before seeking recovery. These individuals left behind parents, spouses, and young children. Most devastating may be the age posted at the end of every profile. Whether the victim lived until their 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s, it never feels long enough.
Also quite devastating are the photos and quotes accompanying many of the profiles. For instance, the profile of 20-year-old victim Casey McRae includes a photo of her 4-year-old daughter standing at her coffin after McRae died upon her very first time using heroin in September of 2015. Then there is the testimony of November victim Robert Hrinuk’s mother, who feels not enough is being done to stop the epidemic.
“If there was a serial killer in my neighborhood killing 20-year-olds, we would all be going crazy trying to stop it.”
Then there are the Facebook messages of Courtney Walraven, who died in December at the age of 29. One message was a simple macro bearing the word “Unbreakable.” Another expressed love for the woman closest to her.
“Christmas shopping is hard when your mom deserves an island and you can afford a candle.”
After she died, her mother took to Facebook to post the following:
“I will always walk with a part of me that is not here.”
Many surviving loved ones of overdose victims can relate. Unfortunately, the epidemic only continues growing. In a longer article regarding the Generation Heroin project, Palm Beach Post pushes past December of 2015. They instead end on the first death of 2016, the January 8 overdose of 18-year-old Maggie Marie Saitta. Her last Facebook post:
“Everything heals. Your body heals. Your mind heals. Your soul repairs itself. Your happiness always comes back.”
In lieu of the person who wrote them, her surviving family must now cling desperately to this message. Because despite the truth that we all heal in time, nothing can fully cure the loss of a loved one.
Response to Generation Heroin
The last words of these victims are an absolute gut punch to anyone with working tear ducts. Fortunately, this project does more than cause pain—it galvanizes change. Two activists, Lissa Franklin and Justin Kunzelman, spoke to The Fix about Generation Heroin. In Franklin’s words:
“They are honoring the fallen, educating the masses and advocating for the implementation of solutions for the sick.”
Kunzelman has his own take on the importance of Generation Heroin:
“We’re in the middle of the worst drug epidemic, worse than crack in the ‘80s. The response then was to militarize police and create an unhealthy justice system.”
This is why Kunzelman works with Rebel Recovery to advocate for better drug policies. He believes, as do many, that those suffering from substance use disorders require treatment rather than harsh prison sentences. Fortunately, such changes might lurk somewhere out on the horizon. Because activists like Franklin and Kunzelman are not the only ones responding to Generation Heroin. Politicians, such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio, took note of the story as well:
“It’s shocking to realize that in 2015, more people died in Palm Beach County from opioids than in car accidents. Seeing the faces of these 216 victims drives home the incredible toll this epidemic is having in our state, and makes it clear the disease of drug addiction can visit any family at any time.”
Rubio feels that Generation Heroin should inform the state’s policy work. And since many deaths seem related to corruption in the treatment industry, he feels that policy solutions may help mitigate the problem. He now wishes to review the 241-page grand jury investigation, which includes evidence of such crimes as insurance fraud and sexual assault.
With the cooperation of compassionate politicians such as Rubio, perhaps we can curtail the rising overdose rates in Florida. We can do away with corrupt treatment centers, leaving only those who truly wish to heal. And, with outlets such as Palm Beach Post on the lookout, we can spread awareness of this devastating killer. Because, as Rubio said, addiction can strike anyone. We should never take lightly the loss of those who fall prey to it, or the suffering of those they leave behind.