In the state hardest hit by opioid deaths, the community is fighting back.
By: Priscilla Liu
1 year ago
A pastor, a funeral director, and the owner of a monuments company are the team behind the biggest grassroots push to fight the heroin/opioids epidemic in Ohio.
It’s been nine months now since Father Bob Stec of Saint Ambrose Parish, Mark Busch of Busch Funeral and Crematory Services, and Jim Milano of Milano Monuments came together from across the greater Cleveland region to found Greater Than Heroin, a dedicated resource for those battling heroin addiction as well as an advocacy organization seeking to destigmatize drug addiction in the community.
“We felt like we needed to tell the story of the outcomes of addiction,” said Busch. “Who better than a funeral director, monuments owner, and pastor to lead the effort in their community?”
Father Stec agrees that the group’s professions are the impetus behind their dedication to the cause. “We’ve all been overwhelmed with the number of [people in their 20s-40s] that we’re helping bury and helping their families as well as dealing with this epidemic,” he said.
Since launching the website greaterthanheroin.com in August 2016, the team has organized community meetings with groups including police, first responders, funeral homes, religious leaders, and civic figures.
On April 23, Greater Than Heroin organized an “Awareness Sunday,” during which hundreds of faith leaders undertook discussion of the heroin epidemic with their communities. Some 550 churches across northeast Ohio participated. At Saint Ambrose, Stec’s parish, an informal poll showed that about half of the congregation had been impacted by the epidemic.
“This is a huge problem,” he said. “Look at all these obituaries of young people. Look at the rise of deaths among young people in the past few years, many of whom have passed away due to opioids.”
Obituary data supports Stec’s observation. A search of Legacy.com’s database, which includes obituary data from over 1,500 newspapers and 3,500 funeral homes, shows that only one obituary in 2007 included the words “overdose” and “addict.” In comparison, 68 obituaries in 2016 had those search terms. The number of obituaries mentioning addiction increased 700 percent while obituary volume during that same time period grew by only 44 percent.
In 2016, one in nine heroin deaths in the United States happened in Ohio. Trends indicate that 2017 will be even worse. In March, the Washington Post reported that drug overdose deaths overwhelmed a county to the point that the coroner’s office requested a cold-storage trailer to act as an overflow morgue. In Cuyahoga County, which includes the Cleveland metro area, there were 60 deaths in February.
In April, Busch’s funeral home cared for seven families who had deaths because of heroin.
“One of my [funeral director] colleagues was conducting a funeral service for a heroin death,” Busch said. “One of the people attending the funeral actually overdosed and died in his bathroom. It’s beyond words.”
The staff at Milano Monuments has also seen the uptick in drug-related deaths.
“It’s off the charts right now, especially in Cleveland. It’s a daily occurrence,” Milano said. “It’s overwhelming on our staff and very emotional to help these families. It’s something that we really want to help spread the word about.”
Milano has first-hand experience with the epidemic’s spread in his community. Just weeks ago, a son of a dear friend overdosed on heroin and died, leaving behind three children. In Milano’s own family, he recounted the story of a nephew who overdosed on heroin and was in the ICU for three months, ultimately losing the use of his legs and arms. Another nephew, after seeing his brother in the ICU, overdosed on heroin and died, leaving behind two kids.
The experiences of Stec’s friends and parishioners have made the epidemic impossible for him to ignore. Last year, a 35-year-old man came back to Ohio for Easter celebrations with his family at Stec’s parish, the first one after his mother’s death. He had battled a six-year addiction to prescription drugs after a devastating accident and had finally reached the milestone of being one year sober. After driving for hours straight to make it home to Nashville for work on Monday, his old injuries flared up. A few weeks later, Stec found out that he had turned to heroin for relief and overdosed.
“The sadness of that story is epic. It gets worse. His girlfriend videotaped her story for the Greater Than Heroin movement. The problem is, we can’t use the video now because two months ago she was driving to work after dropping her son off at school and a driver who was high on drugs ran into her and killed her,” he said. “Heroin usage is of epidemic proportion. We all know it, but nobody can seem to wrap their minds around it. The only way we’re going to tackle it is to do it together.”
Busch points to inadequate regulation and control of prescription opioids as a big contributor to the epidemic. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 48 million people have used prescription drugs inappropriately. This means that approximately 20 percent of Americans aged 12 and older have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons in their lifetime. A 2009 study that interviewed young, urban heroin users found that a whopping 86 percent started off abusing opioid pain relievers before becoming injection drug users. They obtained opioid pain relievers from family, friends, or personal prescriptions.
Busch has personally experienced how easy it is to obtain prescription pain pills. After undergoing elbow surgery, Busch was legally able to procure 58 narcotic-based pain pills within 24 hours. He was shocked.
“There was no reason why the pharmacy shouldn’t have requested I return the medications from the day prior before I got the new medication, but they didn’t do that,” he said.
The statistics in Ohio are staggering. Deaths due to opioid-related overdoses increased 642 percent between 2000 and 2015. Governor John Kasich signed the Hospice Opioid Diversion Bill in 2014 as a continued effort to regulate prescription opioids. Despite implementing more stringent diversion protocols, it’s impossible to completely prevent people from stealing prescription drugs intended for those near the end of life.
“When my sister passed away, we probably had six bottles of very strong narcotics [left, that she had used] to manage her pain,” Milano said. “Easily, the people in and out of her house could have stolen these very heavy narcotics.”
Just the other week, Busch spoke with a hospice worker who placed appropriate pain medications in the home for a patient on Friday and came back on Monday to discover that the patient’s granddaughter had stolen all the pills.
“This epidemic is impacting social communities, professional communities, and workplace communities. We can’t wait for the federal, state, or county governments to do what is necessary to [help us],” he said.
While Greater Than Heroin has seen success in their meetings and awareness events so far, the group knows it’s only the beginning. They are currently planning a benefit event for the fall to help fund their work.
“[Awareness Sunday] brought the opportunity for a wonderful conversation across our region and helped break the silence around the heroin epidemic,” Stec said. “The people in my parish were talking about it. Overall it was a very impactful, very good conversation.”
Busch hopes that further funding and community engagement can continue this discussion, emphasizing the devastating consequences of opioid addiction.
“The funeral home is where you’re going to end up if you use drugs,” he said. “You do these drugs, you are going to die. We have no worse epidemic facing a generation that’s impacting siblings, parents, grandparents, employers, first responders, and faith leaders.”
Stec points to greaterthanheroin.com as a good starting point for anyone who is looking for information or resources. The group has compiled information to help others bring awareness of the opioid epidemic to their friends and loved ones. On the site, people can download materials for public speaking, printed flyers, online and social media posts, as well as access county-specific data and crisis centers.
“All of us need to be in on this thing. It is a problem larger than any of us can even imagine,” he said. “We have to break this crisis, and the only way to do that is together.”