As a concerned community, we can talk about the problems inflicted on society by heroin addiction — increases in the overall crime rate, the cost of increasing law enforcement and public health personnel, and even devoting more of the school year to warn children of the dangers inherent with drug use. But the ultimate cost is the loss of the lives of the addicts themselves — the loss of all the potential that was within them as children and which should have been their gifts to society as they grew. The corpse that was once a living, breathing human being is the ultimate cost.
In her testimony before the Senate Task Force panel that visited Penn Yan Feb. 23, Dundee Central School Superintendent Kelly Houck tells of her first hand experience of the consequences left in the wake of a heroin user’s death.
“In my school district of just over 700 students, heroin has taken the life of a 17-year-old girl, a high school senior with her entire life ahead of her, and a former Dundee Central School student just a mere 23 years old, again an individual with a whole life ahead of him. Additionally, it has and is touching the lives of many faculty members and students...
“It leaves me to ask the question, ‘How many more people must die, or who must die, in order for it to finally be enough?’
“I can’t begin to explain or paint a picture that is vivid enough for each of you that accurately displays how heart wrenching it is for me to send an email to my entire faculty that I need to have an emergency faculty meeting with them before classes began, where I share with them that we have lost another child; or how incredibly devastating it is to a student’s classmates when faced with the harsh reality of the tragic loss of an untimely death of a fellow classmate.
“As I try to comfort them and help them through one of the most difficult times in their lives that they will ever experience, I find myself not being able to control my own thoughts and fears that this will not be the last time that we walk this walk, the cruel harsh reality that it will only be a matter of time, unless significant actionable and tangible steps are taken to combat this epidemic.”
While the fear is multiplied by hundreds for Houck by all her students, it is magnified by thousands for parents like Janet Heaven and her husband who lost their son Jan. 5 because of heroin. It is magnified by the thousands of days they loved their son, but were still unable to keep him safe. Society thinks of overdose as the way heroin addicts die, but there are other risks to intravenous drug addiction. Heaven recounted the end of her son’s life, and what led him to his ultimate cost. Speaking just weeks after his death, she hopes to save other addicts, parents, and family members from her family’s fate.
“Chad James Heaven spent two weeks in the intensive care unit at Rochester General Hospital starting Dec. 23, 2015 and ending Jan 5, 2016. His body was septic. He had an unidentifiable infection. He had a fever of 105. He had Hepatitis C. His blood pressure was off the charts. He was never conscious during those two weeks in the hospital. The doctors were not sure what exactly happened. It could have been a bad needle. It could have been a bad batch of heroin. It could have been an overdose. It could have been any number of things but the end result was death.
“Our son was a great, fun loving child, full of life, fun and energy. No child hopes to be an addict when he grows up, and no parent hopes to raise an addict. No human is immune to addiction,” Janet told the Task Force members.
She says the addict is not the only person affected.
“ When people try to help the active addict, they are setting themselves up to be hurt. A heroin user will lie, cheat, steal, pawn and do basically anything to get ‘lifted.’ Nice people will offer them a place to stay and the next thing they know, their money, jewelry, and electronics are missing, and the addict has moved on to the next kind soul trying to help this person who can tell a great story to get what they need. My good friend says ‘If a heroin addicts lips are moving they are lying.’ This is so sad but so true.”
Janet says her son started his experimentation with drugs in high school. He had some minor brushes with law enforcement, and the use of marijuana and pills escalated to more powerful, addictive drugs, and most recently heroin. After graduating from high school, he joined the Army. “He loved being in the Army,” she said.
Chad spent time in Iraq and was stationed in Hawaii and later in Colorado. He and his wife, who is still an “active addict,” according to Janet, had two daughters. They both lost custody of their daughters and the girls have been adopted by a loving family.
The Heavens tried to help their son, giving him clothing, money, a car to drive and a place to stay. She said when her son was clean and sober, he was a delight, but when he was using, he was not a pleasant person and they lived in fear. When he was arrested and jailed she sometimes wished he would be kept in jail.
From her years of experience with Chad’s addiction, Janet wanted to clarify certain commonly held myths of addiction:“Myth: Heroin is cheap.
Fact: Heroin is not cheap. It cost my son numerous X-Boxes, Play Stations, TVs, furniture, jewelry, expensive watches, phones, cars, etc. It cost him his dignity, his self-esteem, his self-respect. It cost him a decent apartment and all of ...its furnishings and sadly his daughters. It cost him his life at age 28.
Myth: You can use it once in a while and be fine.
Fact: There is no such thing as a recreational heroin user. It is not to be confused with having a joint or having a beer.
Myth: My friend gets it for me.
Fact: Your heroin dealer is not your friend, he/she is a heroin dealer. If he were your friend, you would be alive to talk about it. If he were your friend, you wouldn’t have gotten started in the first place because friends don’t want their friends dead.
Myth: Heroin dealers look like thugs.
Fact: They can also look like a choir boy, be well-spoken, well mannered, very charming, and come from a decent home just like you did.
Myth: Heroin is the ultimate high.
Fact: While the rush lasts minutes, withdrawal symptoms are always waiting for you. They include muscle and bone pain, diarrhea and vomiting, abdominal cramps, insomnia, restlessness, runny nose, cold flashes and goosebumps, sweating, involuntary kicking motions, racing pulse, high blood pressure, increased respiratory rate, and severe anxiety.
Myth: I can handle it.
Fact: Chad James Heaven 12/18/1987-1/5/2016.”
Alexis Pleus, an engineer and SUNY professor, faced the loss of her oldest son to heroin in August 2014.
She too spoke before the Senate Task Force Feb. 23, saying, “I am the mother of three sons, but today, I would like to tell you about my first-born son, Jeff. Jeff was a good student, popular and a great athlete. He was charismatic, kind, and always stuck up for the underdog. He was absolutely passionate about everything he did. Little did I know, he became addicted to opioids in his senior year of high school when they were prescribed for a knee injury. He went on to college and even played football and wrestled there. Upon completion, he was a chef at excellent restaurants and since he lived independently, I didn’t see signs of his addiction.”
He graduated high school in 2004 and it was not until 2011 that she learned of his addiction when she got a call that he had been arrested for house burglaries.
“My son. My son, who was raised well and as far as I knew, had never gotten in trouble beyond speeding tickets. I was devastated, but even more so when I met with the public defender who, after I said, ‘This can’t be — Jeff wouldn’t do this and it doesn’t even make sense,’ he said, ‘A lot of things that heroin addicts do, don’t seem to make sense,’” Pleus explained, adding, “You could have knocked me over with a feather.”
She said after struggling with recovery efforts, a disastrous relationship, and several relapses, Jeff seemed to have his addiction under control. At his 10th year class reunion, many people said he looked the best they had seen him in years. “Sunday, Jeff came over and we had a nice big family breakfast,” says Pleus. “Monday Jeff went golfing with his dad, his little brother Jon and his girlfriend. Monday night Jeff used heroin and it killed him. On a Tuesday morning, just 18 months ago, they found my son.”
Like so many other parents, Pleus cannot explain it. “Every day from the day I learned I was carrying my son to the day of his death, he was loved. But love is not enough to conquer this addiction. I’m not sure what would have been enough for Jeff, but I know he was not offered the types or lengths of treatment that are proven to be effective, nor were we ever educated about what those were.”
In her loss Pleus felt compelled to start an awareness and advocacy organization, Truth Pharm, which has made its way to the national front. They work to raise awareness, reduce stigma, and advocate for programs and policy changes. They have enrolled four police agencies to date in the Gloucester Angel Program, have gotten many people into treatment, and are providing Community Response Action Plans across upstate New York.
“We, like many others, believe the solution to this epidemic is multi-faceted. However, we believe the time for action is now... It isn’t time for a band aid. It’s time for a tourniquet,” she says.
Pleus says what is needed from our lawmakers now is:
1. Humane, medically assisted detox.
2. Same day evaluations.
3. Immediate access to treatment.
4. To require insurers to pay for the type and length of treatment known to be effective.
5. To increase insurance reimbursement rates so that treatment centers can afford to open and operate in New York.
“Everything else is ancillary and can wait. But, we cannot wait for these things,” she adds.