They were more than statistics.
They were someone’s son or daughter.
Some had children of their own.
They made mistakes and many made tried to change, but in the end, they couldn’t overcome the opiate addiction that has killed at least 119 people in Lorain County this year, nearly double the 65 fatal overdoses last year.
“This is in every community in our county,” said Dr. Stephen Evans, Lorain County coroner. “It knows no socioeconomic group. It knows no racial group. It’s killing us all. It’s killing all of our children.”
Evans said most died of a cocktail of drugs that often included cocaine, fentanyl, and heroin.
About 55 percent of the victims were men and most were between the ages of 20 and 40. About 80 percent were white and the majority lived in Elyria and Lorain although there were victims of all races and they lived throughout the county. Among the dead were people from our communities of Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington.
Because he deals with victims’ relatives, Evans has an intimate knowledge of the lives of victims. While some see the victims solely as statistics and believe they deserved to die because of their choices, Evans sees their humanity and understands the powerful pull of addiction.
He notes many people are genetically predisposed to addiction and many became addicted after being prescribed painkillers for legitimate illnesses and injuries. Others succumbed to peer pressure and the belief that recreational use of opiates wouldn’t lead to addiction.
Evans said it hurts to hear people say addicts should be allowed to die.
“Everybody says that until they walk home and find their own kid on the floor unresponsive,” he said. “Then all of a sudden they take a different look at the drug problem.”
Besides the loss of lives, the epidemic has overwhelmed the county’s courts, jail, and police as they deal with drug-related crime. Through Nov. 14 there were 16 homicides, many drug-related, compared to six last year.
And police say most burglaries and thefts are drug-related with addicts stealing to feed their habits. The epidemic was cited as a major reason that county commissioners passed a quarter-percent sales tax increase earlier this month to eliminate a deficit and avoid laying off overstretched Lorain County sheriff’s deputies and county assistant prosecutors.
Heroin laced with the extremely potent fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is blamed for the spike in deaths. Where one dose of naloxone — a synthetic narcotic in a nasal spray that blocks the effects of opiates like heroin on the nervous system — used to revive overdose victims in past years, it now often takes several doses.
“Almost everyone in this department has used Narcan (the brand name for naloxone) on someone,” said Amherst police Sgt. Jacob Perez. “I’ve used it twice on the same person in different incidents. It’s just how it is now, and the guys are knowing more and more what to expect. It’s not uncommon anymore like when we first started carrying it. It’s becoming second nature.”
Thomas Stuber, CEO and president of The LCADA Way, a drug treatment group which serves at least 3,000 addicts annually, estimates the epidemic won’t peak until 2019. “The situation is getting worse,” he said.
Stuber said the number of addicts seeking treatment has ballooned.
In 2012, LCADA (formerly the Lorain County Alcohol and Drug Abuse agency) averaged about 24 people per week seeking treatment for the first time. It is now 54 per week with 70 percent opiate addicts. LACADA, which has about 125 staffers, has treatment centers in Avon Lake, Elyria, Lorain, and two in Medina County.
Among those receiving treatment through LCADA is Sean Cameron, 28, of Mayfield Heights. Cameron, a recovering oxycodone addict who said he last used on Nov. 17, said he started using in 2010.
Cameron is one of 55 men living at the Primary Purpose Center, a halfway house in Sheffield Township that opened Nov. 14. Primary Purpose, a nonprofit group that is partnered with LCADA and other agencies, also opened a nine-bed center for women in May in North Ridgeville.
“No one in this building is stupid,” Cameron said. “There’s a lot of smart people who just mess around with the wrong substance. Once you’re exposed to that, it takes priority over everything else in life.”
A NATIONAL PROBLEM
The county’s death spike mirrored a trend in Ohio and the rest of the nation. Opiate deaths have quadrupled nationally since 2000.
The epidemic was partially triggered by overuse of prescription painkillers beginning in the 1990s.
Most addicts begin abusing painkillers before switching to heroin, which is far less expensive than pills and easy to buy on the street. A crackdown in 2011 on Ohio “pill mills” — where doctors unscrupulously handed out prescriptions — also pushed addicts to heroin.
Pharmaceutical company profits soared with the increase in prescriptions. The pain management market generated $11 billion in revenue in 2009 and is expected to generate $15.3 billion this year, according to Frost & Sullivan, a global research and consulting company.
The epidemic fully hit the county in 2012 when 60 people fatally overdosed compared to 22 each in 2010 and 2011.
A lack of treatment has added to the death toll. The county lacks a detox center where addicts typically need about a week to detoxify.
Addicts have to go to Cuyahoga County to detox. There is a waiting list for beds with only about four available per month. Stuber said 15 are needed per week.
“If you’re from Lorain County, you’re pretty much hung out to dry,” said Edward Barrett Jr., Primary Purpose CEO and president.
Efforts to expand treatment were dealt a blow last month when voters rejected Issue 35, a levy that would’ve cost homeowners an additional $42 annually for every $100,000 worth of property they own. The levy would’ve paid for more treatment including a detox center.
Barrett, clean and sober since 1986, said he wishes voters would reconsider given the prevalence of addiction.
“Anybody’s fair game. Whether you have all kinds of money, no kinds of money, no matter what race,” he said. “None of it matters any more.”
With relapse rates as high as 91 percent, according to the National Institutes of Health, reducing addiction can seem insurmountable. However, Cameron, who has relapsed several times, said failure to stay clean is inevitable for most addicts and they shouldn’t be ashamed of it.
“It’s a learning experience,” he said. “That’s the way it’s been for me at least. I had to find my own answers like knowing I couldn’t drink alcohol on the weekends. I had to find that out the hard way.”
Recovering addicts like Cameron receive a combination of counseling, group therapy, and medicine.
It can include Suboxone or Subutex, brand names for buprenorphine and naxolone — synthetic opioids taken in tab form that block opiate cravings. Proponents say buprenorphine is less addictive and debilitating than methadone, a synthetic narcotic. Another treatment is through injections of Vivitrol, the brand name for naltrexone, a synthetic drug similar to morphine that blocks opiate receptors in the brain.
Cameron said Suboxone made him numb and emotionless and he felt like he was trading one addiction for another. He prefers Vivitrol.
“For someone that’s a heroin addict, it prevents a slip. It buys you a window of opportunity,” Cameron said. “If you slip up and make that decision to use, instead of getting that euphoric feeling it only feels like you drank a glass of water.”
Besides providing medicine to block cravings, The LACDA Way is also considering using the Neuro-Stim System Bridge, a device that helps addicts through the hellish withdrawal from addiction. Withdrawal often includes diarrhea, nausea, shaking, sweating, and vomiting. Fear of it is a primary reasons addicts continue to get high.
The Bridge, built by Indiana-based Innovative Health Solutions, resembles a hearing aid and is worn behind the ear. It sends out electronic signals to the brain blocking pain, according to the company.
“I didn’t believe it until I saw a demonstration,” Stuber said. “I actually saw people that were in significant withdrawal and within an hour, their anxiety would calm down, their pain would diminish.”
There is help for addicts if they’re fortunate enough to be able to afford it through insurance or Medicaid — Stuber said the expansion of Medicaid in Ohio through Obamacare in 2014 was a lifesaver — treatment is only as good as an addict’s willingness to accept it. Because so many recovering addicts live in an environment where friends or relatives are often using drugs, relapses are inevitable.
Recovering addicts who have been clean for a significant amount of time are highly susceptible to fatally overdosing when they relapse. Their bodies are unable to handle the high doses they previously tolerated when they were regularly using.
Besides the agony fatal overdoses cause the loved ones of addicts, they are are also difficult for caregivers who often become close to those they are treating. Stuber said grief counselors have worked with his staff due to the high death rate of clients.
However, there are addicts who stay clean. Stuber, who has worked in the recovery field for more than 30 years, said success stories like the young mother who overcame addiction and recently delivered a healthy baby inspire caregivers.
“We can save lives and we have to,” he said. “We have seen these miracles happen.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter. Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3071 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.
Photos by Jonathan Delozier and Evan Goodenow | Civitas Media Thomas Stuber, CEO of The LACADA Way, a drug treatment group, said the heroin epidemic has overwhelmed his organization.