Those left behind: Opioids and the epidemic of loss

  • Cara Moser shows a picture she keeps on her phone of herself and her daughter Eliza Harper, who died of an opioid overdose in November of 2018 on her birthday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chantel Ouimette, pictured at her father’s home in Easthampton, said her brother’s life became more private after he began using opioids. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Debra McNeice looks at a photo of her son, Patrick, who died more than three years ago. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Evelyn Ouimette felt lost and unprepared when she realized her son, Mitch Ouimette, was suffering from an opioid addiction. “We weren’t educated about this at all,” she said. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim Ouimette’s son, Mitch, died of an opioid overdose in 2017. “People move on,” he said, “but we never do.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Henry Brown and Debra McNeice in their Northampton living room, with photos of their son, Patrick. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dan Harper talks about losing his daughter Eliza Harper to an opioid overdose last November. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dr. Ruth Potee, director of addiction services at Behavioral Health Network in Springfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jackson Harper, from left, Isabelle Harper, Cara Moser and Ava Harper. The family is reeling from the November 2018 death of Eliza Harper on her 26th birthday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dan and Jackson Harper fish at Fitzgerald Lake in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dan and Jackson Harper fish at Fitzgerald Lake in Northampton. Eliza introduced Jackson to fishing. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • SUBMITTED PHOTOS

For the Gazette
Published: 10/22/2019 4:51:24 PM

Editor’s note: Over the past few years, the Gazette has reported on many families who have lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic. Parents want to honor their children and who they were before, after and during their struggle with addiction — and as a result, our stories have centered on the person who died. But what about all the people left behind? As one sibling said: “There’s not really a rehab for us.” In the coming days, we will tell stories about families coping with loss, frontline workers in the epidemic and programs created to support individuals and families. We will also highlight treatment options, harm-reduction strategies and resource guides for where to find help.​​

Jackson Harper came home from school on Nov. 30, 2018, as he often did, with two friends from Frontier Regional High School. They had planned to play video games until the Harper/Moser family went out to dinner to celebrate his older sister Eliza’s 26th birthday.

As Jackson, 14, put his book bag down in the kitchen, his friend called out from the living room: “Eliza’s passed out.”

Eliza frequently fell asleep in the living room, so Jackson wasn’t worried. Since it was her birthday, he decided to wake her up in the nicest, gentlest way possible. But when he saw her on the couch, he knew something was wrong.

“Can you guys leave?” he called out to his friends as he punched 911 into his phone. Dispatchers talked him through performing CPR on his sister until paramedics arrived.

But it was too late. Eliza was already dead from an opioid overdose.

Jackson Harper described this experience for an English class prompt to write a story in which a character undergoes a major event. It was “harder than slaying any dragon,” he wrote, “and harder than finding any hidden treasures, and my story is real.”

Addiction, he wrote, seemed like a story straight out of a Stephen King novel: “Like a killer clown, murdering thousands and thousands of people. Yet, addiction is worse.”

The 25 people interviewed for this series offered a range of images similar to Jackson Harper’s killer clown to describe the opioid epidemic: a nightmare, a runaway train, war, plague, genocide, an apocalypse.

It’s a tornado, decimating one house but leaving another untouched.

“It’s a huge monster,” said Northampton resident Miguel Rivera, 43, referring not only to the epidemic itself but also to the pharmaceutical companies that fueled its deadly reach. “It needs to be controlled.”

Rivera, who lost a cousin and many friends to opioid overdoses, has been in recovery from opioid addiction for 10 years. He sometimes wonders how he survived.

Because street opioids are often laced with fentanyl, Dr. Ruth Potee, director of addiction services at the Springfield-based Behavioral Health Network, calls them “a serial murderer on the loose.”

Potee and many others liken the epidemic to the AIDS crisis at its peak.

“It’s the same level, I would argue, of shame and stigma and families not wanting to share that their son is dying,” Potee said.

Family members are left bewildered and angry — and never the same again.

“We’re barely — not even perceptibly — slowing the runaway train,” said Henry Brown, whose son, Patrick, died in 2016 when he was 28. Since then, Brown has witnessed the overdose deaths of several of Patrick’s friends. “We’re decimating a generation.”

Potee sees the impact on more than a single generation.

“There’s a generation of young people who are no longer with us,” she said. “But then, there’s a generation above them, their families, who have been ravaged.”

A club nobody wants to join

In 2016, then-Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued a first-of-its-kind, call-to-arms document, “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health.” His goal was to change the nation’s thinking about the disease of addiction.

“Substance use disorders represent one of the most pressing public health crises of our time,” Murthy wrote. “Whether it is the rapid rise of prescription opioid addiction or the long-standing challenge of alcohol dependence, substance misuse and substance use disorders can — and do — prevent people from living healthy and productive lives.

“And, just as importantly,” he continued, “they have profound effects on families, friends and entire communities.”

Although Murthy was referring to the broad topic of addiction, data shows that the nation’s overdose death rate is driven in large part by opioids, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting that two out of three overdose deaths involve an opioid. Opioid is an umbrella term referring to highly addictive prescription pain medications including oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and the highly potent fentanyl, as well as the illegal street drug heroin.

According to the CDC, the nationwide rate of overdose deaths caused by opioids has increased every year since 1999, bringing the national opioid death toll for the years 1999 to 2017 to 399,000. In 2014, there were 28,647 opioid-linked deaths. In 2017 (the most recent year for which figures are confirmed), the number was 47,600, a 39.8 percent increase in three years.

Statewide, according to figures published by the Department of Public Health, 1,351 people died from opioid overdoses in 2014, compared to 2,054 in 2017, a 33.5 percent increase. The numbers for Hampshire and Franklin counties, combined, were 37 in 2014 and 59 in 2018, a 37.2 percent increase.

If the opioid epidemic is a war, these numbers represent the casualties. And where there are casualties, there are also the people left behind, the family and friends who helped their loved ones — or tried against great odds to save their lives.

These are the people devastated by the opioid epidemic. There are legions of them — precisely how many we don’t know because while the CDC tracks opioid-related deaths, nobody is tracking those left behind.

We know their numbers grow every day, families forced into a club nobody wants to join, people trying to stitch broken lives back together.

Families interviewed for this series lost children ranging in age from 19 to 34 years old, between the dates of Feb. 22, 2016, and May 3, 2019. They are from Northampton, South Deerfield, Easthampton, Belchertown and Springfield.

“It’s the same story,” said Cara Moser, Eliza Harper’s mother. “All the details are different, and they’re all meaningful, but there’s a skeleton to it all.”

The Brown/McNeice family

Northampton residents Henry Brown and Debra McNeice now understand that the addiction that would claim their son Patrick’s life took root so slowly in the early years they didn’t even see it.

“Pat found, sometime in his teen years, that drugs and alcohol could make him feel better,” said Henry Brown, a former special education teacher.

In retrospect, Brown and McNeice understand the addiction not only took Patrick’s life on Feb. 22, 2016, but in the years before, it stifled his potential and interfered with his relationships with the people he loved. In the early years of their son’s addiction, they assumed his use of substances was a phase he’d pass through, as many young people do.

Patrick graduated from Northampton High School in 2006 and headed off to St. Michael’s College near Burlington, Vermont. “He snowboarded his way out of there,” said his father, a polite way of saying he flunked out. Whether that was related to Patrick’s addiction, his father is simply not sure. Like so many parents whose children use drugs, for Brown some questions remain unanswerable.

Later, Patrick did so well at Greenfield Community College, he got accepted into the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts. But he was in trouble, and his parents didn’t know it. One day when Brown and McNeice visited Patrick’s apartment, they saw that he had lost around 30 pounds. He had big, dark circles under his eyes and was incoherent.

Shortly after that encounter, his parents learned it was opioid addiction. On a family trip to Philadelphia to visit his sister for Christmas, Patrick went into withdrawal. His parents desperately searched for help for him. Eventually, he went to outpatient treatment. He received Suboxone, medication-assisted treatment for people addicted to opioids, for about five years.

Those were hard years. McNeice said she felt a panicked sensation every time she heard a siren.

“We worried every day,” she said.

“24/7,” added Brown.

They knew relapse was a risk. Desperately, they tried to read the signs. Their son frequently wore short sleeves, and they never saw needle marks. He seemed healthy, paid his bills, kept a job. He was functioning.

In the year before he died, Patrick seemed to be doing well working as a bartender at the former Pizzeria Paradiso in Northampton, and if that work was not quite living up to his potential, it provided a living, and he enjoyed how social it was.

“A lot of people would have no idea that he was struggling like he was,” said McNeice.

Shortly before Patrick died, Brown and McNeice became deeply concerned that he was relapsing.

“We were quite worried, but also quite optimistic,” said Brown. “He was taking responsibility for his own recovery.”

On Feb. 21, 2016, Henry Brown enjoyed an ordinary phone conversation with Pat — they talked about an excise tax bill, made a plan to go snowboarding and Pat ended the call with, “I love you.”

The next night, Brown opened the front door of his Hillside Road home at 10 p.m. to see two police officers on the front steps.

“What are you doing here?” Brown asked. Even when the officers came into the house and sat down, he still couldn’t make the connection that Pat had died.

“In our minds, we were beyond the police coming,” Brown would say later. And in the years since, he has replayed that earlier phone call over and over in his mind.

Brown felt, at the time, that there were signs in that conversation. Pat was paying his excise bill. That meant he was taking care of business. He invited his father to go snowboarding — something they had always loved to do together. He’d said, “I love you.”

He had seemed to be engaged in life.

The Ouimette family

For Jim and Evelyn Ouimette, the 2017 death of their 19-year-old son, Mitch, came a few short months after they realized there was a problem.

One late afternoon this past August, as the skies darkened outside with an approaching thunderstorm, Jim and Evelyn, who are divorced, their daughter Chantel, 25, and Jim Ouimette’s partner, Tina Hutton, gathered in the living room of Jim’s Easthampton home to talk about Mitch. Like others interviewed for these stories, they agreed to take part hoping it might help other families.

“Don’t think it won’t be your kid, because it might be your kid,” said Evelyn Ouimette. She and Jim both say they were ill-equipped to help Mitch. They didn’t know the signs or understand opioid addiction. Once they began to grasp the severity of the problem, they didn’t know how to get help.

“He got in over his head,” said Jim Ouimette. “I just thought he was partying — I never in my life thought it was opiates.”

“I think he kind of hid it well,” said Hutton.

At Hampshire Regional High School, Mitch had been a standout athlete in football and basketball, wearing No. 5 for both sports. At the end of his junior year and into his senior year, the family began noticing that Mitch was distancing from his family.

He graduated Hampshire Regional in 2016, but in the months immediately after, there were signs of deeper trouble. He crashed two cars, couldn’t seem to keep a job and was argumentative.

“He just seemed like that kid who didn’t know what he wanted to do, and he wasn’t focused,” said Jim Ouimette. “He seemed lost.”

He was much less communicative with family and seemed to only want to be out with his friends.

“His life was very private now,” Chantel said.

She brought her concerns to their mother, Evelyn Ouimette, who had conversations with Jim, with whom she had a cordial and cooperative co-parenting relationship. They realized Mitch’s changed behavior was related to drug use.

“We weren’t educated about this at all,” said Evelyn Ouimette. With some research online, she found a treatment center for people 21 and under in Mississippi and convinced Mitch to go.

Once he stopped denying he had a problem, they felt he had a chance. Mitch seemed receptive to getting the help his parents knew was essential. When he returned home from the 45-day program, his behavior gave the Ouimette family hope. He seemed committed to recovery.

“I thought ‘Oh, my God, he’s back, and we’re going to tackle each issue. He’s home. We’ve got our Mitchell back,’” said Evelyn Ouimette. “That didn’t happen.”

For his sister, dealing with the addiction was confounding.

“You send them off to rehab, but there’s not really a rehab for us, so you have to educate yourself on Google or whatever,” she said. “You don’t really know what to do.”

The Harper/Moser family

Eliza Harper died of an opioid overdose after a promising 10-month period of recovery, during which she was at Holyoke Community College and working at Rockridge Senior Living Community in Northampton.

She seemed to be thriving and happy, according to her family.

“Things were looking great,” said her father, Dan Harper. “It was easy to let my guard down a little bit.”

That period of recovery had followed five years of struggle, including several near-fatal overdoses and multiple stays in treatment centers in five different states. Though separated, Dan Harper and Cara Moser worked together to support Eliza. And through it all, her mother said, Eliza yearned to get better.

“It was a constant effort to get her well — and she so much wanted to be well, she would find her own bed,” said Cara Moser. “She would take the initiative.”

Moser had frank conversations with her daughter about her drug use, urging her to use safely. She was so concerned about fentanyl in the drug supply, she begged her daughter to never use drugs by herself. Her goal was to keep her daughter alive until a robust recovery could take root — which both parents firmly believed would happen.

Dan Harper said he drove Eliza to recovery meetings and tried to find other ways to support her.

“When you have kids, they scrape their knee and you fix it. They break their bike, you fix it. They need to cook a chicken, you teach them,” he said. “When they become addicted, you do everything for them …”

At this point, he broke down in tears and when he finally managed to collect himself, he finished the thought: You do everything you can for them, but you can’t fix it.

“I thought she was gonna beat it, I sure did,” Moser said. “She was such a wonderful person. She put herself out to everyone — people really gravitated towards her.”

“There’s a certain amount of denial,” said Harper. “You say she’s going to make it through, and then when she doesn’t … It’s not the way things are supposed to work.”

Coming tomorrow: Day 2, The aftermath of overdose deaths

Laurie Loisel, a former reporter and editor for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, is director of outreach and education for the office of Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan. Loisel wrote these stories for the Gazette in her capacity as an employee of the district attorney’s office.




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