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Black balloons serve as grim reminder of opioid death toll

Frank Pingitore and Stacy LaBruno took the bus from Angola to downtown Buffalo to be present for the Black Balloon Day ceremony Monday at Old County Hall in remembrance of victims of opiate-related deaths.

Almost a year ago, they lost their daughter, Abby Pingitore, who succumbed to an 8-year struggle with an addiction to heroin and crack cocaine. She was 25.

"A lot of people shunned me because I had an addict in my family, but I'm not ashamed to say, yes, my daughter was an addict," LaBruno said. "But you can't turn your backs on them. They're still people."

Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County's health commissioner, echoed LaBruno's sentiments at Monday's ceremony, noting addicts are not victims of bad behavior -- but victims of a disease.

"We want to send out the message that we are not forgetting the ones that we have lost. We are not forgetting our victims. We are a support of each other and no matter how anybody died, they are still important and we still love them and respect them. They still contributed so much to our planet and to our lives," Burstein said, at the close of the hour-long ceremony.

The event attracted about 250 participants and featured about 100 black balloons anchored in various spots in front of Old County Hall.

John J. Flynn, Erie County district attorney and another of the speakers at the event, vowed that his office would not harass addicts, but vigorously go after those who sell the illegal narcotics and opiates that now claim hundreds of lives each year locally.

For Jeanie Kline, Monday became her first Black Balloon Day.

A year ago, her son, Benjamin, was still alive.

He called her early one morning last May to let her know he was dropping off his puppy at her house before heading into work that day.

"I'll be there soon, Mom," he told her.

A few hours passed with no sign of him, so Kline sent her husband to Ben's apartment. But she knew the truth before he even got there.

Her 28-year-old son was dead of an opioid overdose.

Now, she lives with reminders of all she's lost. She just finished paying off her son's gravestone at Holy Cross Cemetery. And on Monday, she picked up a black balloon in front of Old County Hall alongside many other mourners and grieve some more.

"It's the hardest thing you have to do," she said. "You want to save your child's life, but you are powerless."

Frank Pingitore and Stacy LaBruno, who lost their daughter Abby Pingitore almost a year ago, take a moment before a ceremony for people who have lost loved ones to opiates in front of Old County Hall in Buffalo Monday, March 6, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The opioid epidemic claimed more than 320 lives last year. A drop in the overdose death rate late in the spring gave many health officials reason to hope that Erie County had turned the corner in beating back the wave of fatalities. But numbers have risen again.

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In the first two months of this year, 67 people are suspected to have died of an opiate-related drug overdose.

Ben Kline was found in his living room, his puppy nearby. He apparently thought he was injecting heroin, but instead injected three different types of fentanyl.

While his family was at his funeral a week later, drug dealers were still texting his cellphone, asking if he was OK.

Everyone was at Ben's service. He was a former straight-A student, a two-year Army veteran and a full college scholarship recipient, Jeanie Kline said. He went to his college classes while high and dropped out after a year, despite maintaining a B average, his mother said. He was well-liked by colleagues, relatives and friends, despite his struggles with mental illness since the age of 12, she said.

He was also bright enough to hold down steady employment despite drug addictions that dated back to his early teenage years.

His mother knew about Ben's addictions because her son had been brutally honest with her since he was 19. He'd been drinking and experimenting with drugs for several years by then. His mental illness, the loss of a close childhood friend, and other physical health problems took their toll over the years.

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When Dr. Eugene Gosy, an Amherst pain specialist, was indicted in April on a 114-count indictment alleging that he provided painkillers to patients without a proper medical reason, Ben read the stories about thousands of patients suddenly left without treatment.

"Oh, Mom, they want us all dead," Kline recalled her son telling her. "It's cheaper that way."

The following month, shortly after the anniversary of an old friend's suicide, Ben told his psychiatrist that he was going to stop coming to sessions. He knew the health professionals at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo cared about him, he said, but that wasn't enough. He felt he needed his drugs.

Sometimes, Kline wonders whether her son overdosed on purpose. He knew heroin sold on the street could be deadly fentanyl.

"He knew what could happen," she said. "He was at a point in his life where he didn't care."

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Black Balloon Day is a when public officials and mourners sing songs, hear speeches, light candles and say their prayers. And when they read the names of those who have lost their lives.

Families were invited to take home one of the more than 300 balloons from the event, one balloon for each opioid-related death last year.

"When I see those balloons, that's going to hit home to me," Kline said. "That's so many families. They're all grieving."

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