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Exploring the human toll of opioids

Gripped by an epidemic in which hundreds have died from heroin or opioid overdoses since 2015, about 500 people turned out Thursday for a town hall meeting in the North Park Theatre.

Police had urged citizens to attend, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, during an earlier visit to Buffalo, called it “a middle-class, suburban drug as much as it is an urban drug. And it’s like fire through dry grass right now.”

Avi Israel, founder of Save the Michaels of the World, sponsor of the event, called it “a family disease, and it destroys families.” His son, Michael, 20, became addicted and took his own life in 2011.

Law enforcement

U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. told the crowd that every family in Western New York likely has some sort of connection to the growing addiction problem by now.

“For me, it’s personal,” he said.

Hochul said that without the opiate antidote Narcan, the number of deaths would be much higher. “So the numbers are staggering,” he said.

Hochul said that five doctors in the region have been convicted of improperly prescribing drugs.

Mayor Byron W. Brown said that there have been 19 deaths in the city so far this year from the crisis, and the number will certainly rise.

He said that Thursday afternoon that there was “another heroin death, this time in the Elmwood Village.”

Voices from the crowd

Those attending the forum – including some students – said they have heard about the crisis and sometimes seen it firsthand.

Jesse Winnicki, 23, who grew up in Corfu and is working on his master’s degree in social work at Daemen College, said that one of his friends “had to actually use Narcan” after receiving training.

Winnicki, a graduate of Pembroke High School, said he doesn’t think the dilemma will be solved overnight.

But he said he thinks it will eventually happen.

Adia Tyson, 40, of Niagara Falls, said that there is a “new face to addiction now.”

Tyson, also a student at Daemen, said she has seen Narcan used twice.

“Prevention is definitely the key,” she said.

Grieving families

Families left heartbroken by the crisis talked about their grief.

Cheryl Placek, 59, of Niagara Falls, was wearing a gold pendant bearing an image of her son, Daniel Jr., who died Jan. 26, 2012, after a long struggle with opioids that he initially was prescribed to deal with back pain.

Her son was a Navy veteran who served in Japan, a plumber and a hockey fan, she said. He died at 28.

“Our journey started when Dan told us he couldn’t stop taking the prescription,” she said.

“My son wanted help,” Placek said, which is what causes her and her husband sorrow.

From the stage, mother Julie Israel told the nearly full theater about her son, Michael.

“I am a survivor of suicide. And I am the face of addiction,” Israel said.

She recalled the son she and husband, Avi, had who, as a kid, would always make people smile. And who read books – Tolstoy among them – for fun. He dealt with illness, depression and addiction, she said.

“I call on each and every one of you,” the grieving mother said, “and urge you to carry our message forward.”

Medical experts

Dr. Gale R. Burstein, Erie County’s health commissioner, detailed some factors that play into addictions.

“The largest risk factor is age,” she said. “Adolescence.”

Of local deaths, 72 percent have been male and 28 percent female, she said.

Burstein outlined some simple steps that people can take in their own homes and lives to combat the problem.

Among them, she said, is discarding old medications in safe ways. “Don’t save it for a rainy day,” Burstein said.

Collection bins for old medications are in various locations and get emptied and disposed of properly, the commissioner said.

People can make a difference, Burstein said. “There’s something we can all do,” she said of addressing the growing problem.

Dr. Richard D. Blondell of the University at Buffalo, said, “The opioid epidemic is getting worse.”

Blondell, vice chairman of addiction medicine and a professor in the Department of Family Medicine, said the problem has roots in genetics.