Northampton vigil held to remember overdose victims

  • Lynn Ferro, at podium, who is the interim director of Northampton Recovery Center, speaks during an overdose awareness vigil held in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, Thursday at First Churches of Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, left, and Paul Hegarty look at a wall of remembrance during an overdose awareness vigil held in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, Thursday at First Churches of Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Northampton City Councilor Bill Dwight, left, Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper and Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz hold candles during an overdose awareness vigil held in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, Thursday at First Churches of Northampton. Dwight and Kasper spoke during the gathering. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Donna Oberle, of Scituate, holds a picture of her son, Gerhard Oberle, who died of an overdose, during an overdose awareness vigil held in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, Thursday at First Churches of Northampton. Dwight and Kasper spoke during the gathering. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lynn Ferro, who is the interim director of Northampton Recovery Center, speaks during an overdose awareness vigil held in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, Thursday at First Churches of Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Paul Hegarty, a longtime recovering addict, speaks during an overdose awareness vigil held in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, Thursday at First Churches of Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Corrin Halford, of Easthampton, and Nick Acevedo, of Boston, listen to a speaker during an overdose awareness vigil held in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, Thursday at First Churches of Northampton. Acevedo's brother, Manny Acevedo, of Boston, died of an overdose 13 days ago. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • People applaud a speaker during an overdose awareness vigil held in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, Thursday at First Churches of Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Liz Whynott, who is the director of HIV Health and Prevention Services at Tapestry Health, speaks during an overdose awareness vigil held in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, Thursday at First Churches of Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ely Bianchet, of Holyoke, speaks during an overdose awareness vigil held in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, Thursday at First Churches of Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jodee Joyce, front, of Northampton, writes a message on a remembrance wall as Nina Kuter, of Northampton, pauses while doing the same during an overdose awareness vigil Thursday at First Churches of Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Caren Sandler and Bob Johnson, of Northampton, listen during an overdose awareness vigil held in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, Thursday, at First Churches of Northampton. They are volunteers and members at Northampton Recovery Center. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

@kate_ashworth
Published: 8/31/2017 11:55:51 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Flames flickered in the wind as those holding candles remembered loved ones who have died from drug overdoses.

Standing in front of the First Churches for a candlelight vigil Thursday, friends and family left behind blew the flames out, one by one.

A longtime heroin user, James Torrey, 30, of Ludlow, shared his story.

He was a Marine, and survived the battle in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004 as a teenager. But the bloodshed overseas led to another fight for his life back home — heroin.

Torrey said troops were hit by an improvised explosive device, or IED. His friend died by his side. Torrey underwent four back surgeries, and was prescribed six 30-milligram doses of oxycodone a day.

The pills helped with not only his pain, but with his anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, too.

Torrey said he started using what was available on the streets after the doctor who was prescribing him high doses of opioids was arrested.

One day, Torrey said, he was using heroin by himself and overdosed. He was able to crawl to his supply of Narcan and administer it to himself.

Last year, he was arrested for renting out foreclosed properties, a scheme he did to feed his addiction.

For those who keep using heroin, Torrey said, “you’ll get a hot shot and die, or you’re going to jail.”

Torrey has been sober for four months and uses the services at Soldier On, a nonprofit organization that provides housing and addiction services to veterans.

Those at the event say there’s stigma around addiction, that some say addicts are weak.

“I’m a United States Marine. I’m not weak, I’m not feeble-minded,” Torrey said.

There has been a sharp increase in opioid overdoses statewide, said Liz Whynott, director of HIV health and prevention services at Tapestry Health.

Tapestry organized Thursday’s vigil to mark International Overdose Awareness Day.

Last year, there were 1,933 unintentional deaths from opioid related overdoses in Massachusetts, according to Whynott, which is an 87 percent increase since 2014.

Whynott said fentanyl, which can be up to 100 times more potent than heroin, is the major cause of the increase. If someone takes a usual dose that happens to be laced with fentanyl, that can lead to an overdose.

Tapestry provides opioid prevention education and free access to Narcan. Between July 2016 and June 2017, Tapestry provided 2,538 Narcan kits to people across western Massachusetts, according to Whynott.

“We just work with keeping people alive,” she said.

Police Chief Jody Kasper said the way in which officers handle the opioid epidemic has changed over the years. Opioid addiction is a problem that can’t be solved by arrest, she said.

In the past, carrying a hypodermic needle was an arrestable offense, she said.

“A lot has changed,” Kasper said.

Now, Narcan, the life-saving drug administered when someone is overdosing on opioids, is carried in all of the police cruisers. Last year, the police department initiated the Drug Addiction Response Team, or DART program, where officers will follow up with those who are at high risk.

“The crisis is not new — it’s been with us for a long, long time,” City Council President Bill Dwight said.

On a banner at the event, some posted pictures, names, messages and obituaries in remembrance of their loved ones who have died due to the epidemic.

Karen James, 53, of Easthampton, put up a photo of her son Joseph Read with his 2-year-old daughters Kylie and Miyah.

Read died last year at age 23. James said her son struggled with anxiety and depression

James said her grandchildren will look at the photo before bed and say “Goodnight daddy. Come see us in a dream.”

As the vigil wound down, Donna Oberle, 57, of Scituate, still held a photo of her son Gerhard tightly in her arms. He died in 2015 at age 27.

Oberle said tests show there was 100 percent fentanyl in his system and he may have died instantly.

“He was murdered because it was fentanyl, not heroin,” she said.

Gerhard used to race motorcross and some accidents left him with broken bones. He played hockey throughout high school. To ease the pain from injuries, he was prescribed Percocet. He often used drugs when he was depressed, Oberle said.

Oberle doesn’t know exactly when her son began using heroin, but once she saw the signs, it was clear.

“I didn’t know until I started finding all the needles and the spoons,” she said.

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at cashworth@gazettenet.com.




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