A life cut short, a stigma to quell

  • Wendy and Tom Werbiskis of Easthampton talk at home on Friday about their son, Danny Werbiskis, who passed away due to a drug overdose on July 31. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The last photo Wendy and Tom Werbiskis have of their son, Danny, taken at Hillsboro Beach, Florida, before he passed away on July 31. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Danny Werbiskis holds a large carp he caught in the Oxbow a few years ago. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A childhood photo of Danny Werbiskis fishing, displayed in his parents’ Easthampton home. Werbiskis passed away due to a drug overdose on July 31. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A tribute to Danny Werbiskis, who passed away due to a drug overdose on July 31, in his parents’ Easthampton home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Wendy Werbiskis of Easthampton talks about the life and death of her son, Danny. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Tom Werbiskis of Easthampton talks about his son, Danny, who passed away due to a drug overdose on July 31. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Saturday, August 19, 2017

EASTHAMPTON — Two weeks after Danny Werbiskis’ death, his mother said she still sees him everywhere — playing in the pool with his friends, coming through the garage door, and in the face of her husband.

Almost two years ago, Wendy and Tom Werbiskis found out about their son’s struggles with drug addiction. Despite their best efforts and Danny’s numerous attempts to get help, he died July 31 from an overdose.

Reflecting from their home in Easthampton Friday, Danny’s parents recalled the life of a young man who loved to be outdoors and was passionate about his career.

From an early age, Danny’s parents said, they knew he would one day work with his hands.

“We knew when he was in kindergarten that he would be a hands-on kind of person,” Wendy said. “It was no surprise to us when he said he wanted to go to Smith Vocational High School.”

Danny told his mother that if he didn’t get into the plumbing program, he’d likely quit school. Luckily, Danny was one of the few who got in.

“He had a great four years at Smith Voc,” his mother recalled.

Even before graduation, Danny worked for his uncle’s heating and cooling business. Two years after graduation, Danny had three different job offers. He chose to join the Plumbers and Pipefitter Union, Local 104.

He did that for four years, Tom said.

“It was a big part of his life. He loved his work,” Wendy said. “He truly loved working.”

To this day, Wendy and Tom aren’t sure when Danny’s drug use began.

“Danny lost somebody close to him six years ago. I started seeing some changes. Depression, I believe, started setting in some. He started drinking more,” his mother said. “I always say he was self-medicating to a degree. I think when the drinking wasn’t really cutting it, I think that is maybe when he picked up with drugs.”

“He never had an injury where he had a prescription,” Tom said. “He bought it off the street.”

Danny started using pills, OxyContin. When the pills became too expensive, he switched to snorting heroin.

“He was buying Suboxone on the street to try and help himself feel better, and we just told him you have to go to a doctor,” his father said.

Even with his addiction, Danny continued to work and didn’t show any of the signs Wendy’s therapist had cautioned her about.

“I knew our Danny. Something was changing,” Wendy said. “He would just kind of shut down. I was scared, really scared, because we didn’t know what was going on.”

Danny started to withdraw from people — his friends, his girlfriend.

“His friends told him he had to straighten out,” Tom said. “He told them he would, but he just couldn’t.”

“He tried many times, I think, on his own to try and detox and that, but he wasn’t successful,” his mother said.

The pair learned about Danny’s drug use after a family friend called to tell them she knew he was using drugs.

It was six long months before they were able to get Danny into treatment.

“We tried so hard to get him to seek help but he kept saying, ‘I can do this. I can do this. I‘ll be OK,’” Wendy said.

It took an ultimatum from his boss and the union for Danny to agree to detox. He went to a treatment center in Vermont for a week and then, at the recommendation of the center, went elsewhere.

“We didn’t know where to go with him,” his father said. “We had no clue.”

From one of the the treatment centers in Vermont, Danny called his parents saying he was afraid people were bringing drugs in.

From there he went to a treatment center east of Worcester. Eventually, Danny made his way to a treatment center in Florida. At one point, his family had him committed for three months at the center, and Danny was able to stay sober.

“When he would leave, he would relapse,” Wendy said.

“He went into detox about a half-dozen times while he was down there,” Tom said.

“Five times. He struggled a lot,” Wendy said.

Before he died, Danny came back home, but he wouldn’t go into treatment.

“He was just running. At this point, he was running from himself,” Wendy said. “We tried to explain to him — it doesn’t matter where you go … your addiction is coming with you and he was just, he was very lost.”

Danny moved back to Florida in May and went back to his old job.

“Two weeks before he passed he sent me a message saying ‘I have a really good feeing this time, mom. Work is going really good.’ He felt good.”

He was there for about a month before he overdosed on a Saturday night, July 15. Carfentanil, a drug 10,000 times more potent that morphine, was in his system.

“He was found in his truck on the side of the road and they had to literally bring him back,” Wendy said. “He was clinically dead when he was found.”

Danny was given Narcan and epinephrine and then put on life-support. His parents were notified Sunday morning via a voicemail from a hospital telling them to call.

“It was my worst fear coming true. As a parent of an addict you live in constant fear. Constant fear because you just don’t know and it’s like Russian roulette every time they use,” Wendy said. “It’s just your worst nightmare because you lay in bed every night and I prayed for his safety. It’s just that call that you can’t even imagine. In some ways this was worst though, because I always thought we could get the call that he was found and he was gone.”

Instead, Danny survived for 17 horrific days in the intensive care unit. On his second day in the ICU, Danny turned 26.

As a result of the cardiac arrest he suffered in the overdose, Danny had five strokes. The fourth day in the ICU, he started having sympathetic storms — a part of his brain kept firing the stress response repeatedly.

It was like Danny was going into a constant seizure, Tom said.

“It was excruciating for Danny,” Wendy said. “It was a horrific death for Danny.”

At his death, Wendy and Tom were by his side. They were able to hug him, hold his hand and talk to him.

A little more than a week after Danny’s tribute services, Wendy and Tom said they know they did everything they could to help their son.

“We loved him unconditionally, and we weren’t ashamed of him, and he knew that,” Wendy said. “We can at least lay down at night and know that we don’t have any regrets.”

In his obituary, the couple were honest about their son’s death and his struggles because, they said, the stigma of addiction needs to change.

“My son was a good person. He was kind. He was loving. He was a hard worker,” Wendy said. “I mean, he wouldn’t hurt a flea, and he was a drug addict.”

Since publishing their son’s obituary, Wendy and Tom said they’ve heard from friends and strangers about their own families’ struggles.

“I don’t know what my future holds but I do know, I have to believe that this all happened for a reason and that maybe I’m meant to help others — whether it’s families or addicts themselves,” Wendy said. “My goal is just to truly share with families.”

“You don’t have to hide and don’t be ashamed. If you have a loved one suffering from addiction, reach out,” Wendy said.

“The more people reach out, it’s going to change the stigma. That’s what we’ve got to do. It can’t be a secret anymore.”

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.