The obituary that a Rochester family placed in The Buffalo News on Sunday and Monday was startling in its grief and honesty.
“Our dearest son, MacKenzie John Weisbeck, entered into eternal peace due to a heroin overdose after a courageous struggle with addiction,” the obituary read.
Not often does a family share the heartbreak of a loss with such candor. Why the family paid to place that notice in the newspaper says a lot about the Weisbecks’ loved ones, as well as the epidemic that has claimed hundreds of young lives throughout the area.
The 29-year-old Iraq War veteran’s family wants the community to know that their son and brother suffered, but that he wanted to live a drug-free life. Like many other addicts, he was no match for heroin and other opioids.
“The struggle for us was always trying to make other people understand. It was the stigma,” said Alison Weisbeck, MacKenzie’s mother, in explaining why the obituary was posted in Buffalo and Rochester.
A long struggle
She grew up on Grand Island; her husband, John, grew up in North Buffalo. They raised their family on Grand Island for several years before moving to the Rochester area. Along with MacKenzie’s lone sibling, 26-year-old Kirsten, they walked through the fires of addiction with unconditional love, willing to support him no matter what.
Yet after five known overdoses, 10 stays at drug detoxification units and rehabilitation facilities, the parents finally had enough and told him last December he could no longer live in their home. That tough love was not enough. He died last week in his friend’s apartment.
When Alison Weisbeck saw her son’s body in his bedroom at the apartment, the anger she once felt toward the doctors and institutions whom she sometimes begged to help MacKenzie was suddenly gone.
“In the end, we realized that the only person who could save MacKenzie was MacKenzie,” she said.
Yet the Weisbecks still believe monumental changes are necessary if society is to win the war against the opiate epidemic that has so many mothers and fathers burying their children.
Road to addiction
MacKenzie started with marijuana at Penfield High School, in a Rochester suburb, where the family relocated after moving from Grand Island because of John Weisbeck’s employment.
“When he was 16, he was smoking pot. He was so ossified, I thought we were going to lose him to pot,” Alison Weisbeck said.
She and her husband withdrew $30,000 from their retirement fund to pay for their son’s admission to a private drug rehabilitation facility in the Albany area.
“At the time, our health insurance carrier did not believe it was an issue. We borrowed the money from our 401(k) and brought him to Albany. In less than 24 hours, he was out on the streets. At age 16, he had legal rights and we had none. He had refused to stay. He would be homeless in Albany, and we went and got him. A big part of his story was that he was the hardest person to get through to,” Alison Weisbeck said.
As his progression into drugs continued, he quit high school in February of his senior year in 2005. A couple of years later, his sister, Kirsten, cajoled him into earning his GED diploma by promising him her Christmas gift money. It worked.
With a GED in hand, he gave up drugs and joined the Army in 2007.
“That was the most proud he was in his whole life. He was GI Joe for four years. When an Army medical board told him he couldn’t go to Iraq because his hearing had been damaged by gunfire, he begged. He told them, ‘I need to do this.’ They let him go, and he was a gunner on top of an MRAP,” the mother said of the mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle.
At 6 feet tall, the lean, 185-pound soldier with chiseled good looks, brown hair and bright blue eyes often volunteered for extra patrols, living up to the motto of his Scottish ancestral name, MacKenzie: “Luceo non uro,” which translated means, “I shine, not burn.” He had the Latin version of the motto tattooed onto the center of his chest.
But MacKenzie’s addiction to drugs pursued him into the service, and he managed to get opiates prescribed to him for a lower back injury he suffered while playing soccer in high school. He left the military with an “under honorable” discharge, though it later was upgraded to an honorable discharge.
“He was such a contradiction. In his military file, there was the concern about the drugs. Then you read things about how he was such a soldier and how he got all these commendations,” Alison Weisbeck said.
John Weisbeck marveled at his son’s bravery, volunteering to go out on night patrols and provide protection for fellow soldiers as they disposed of improvised explosive devices.
Back home on America’s streets, another enemy awaited him.
After the Army, his addiction worsened.
In one instance, MacKenzie secretly brought heroin to a treatment facility in Canandaigua and overdosed in his room. For two minutes, his heart stopped before the medical staff revived him. He was transferred to a hospital, where he threatened to commit suicide. Two hours later, he signed himself out and made his way back to Penfield, his parents said.
The next day, his parents found him in his bedroom, unconscious from an overdose.
John Weisbeck recalled his son telling him that he had often asked for methadone to help him through withdrawals while in treatment facilities, but was denied.
“They thought he wanted to abuse methadone and get high from it,” the father said. “Ironically enough, one of the staff doctors told us that if he doesn’t get on methadone, he will die.”
In another overdose incident, MacKenzie was taken to a Rochester hospital, where a psychiatrist suggested his parents attend an instructional class on how to administer Narcan, an opiate antidote. Her son was at constant risk of fatally overdosing. A doctor in the emergency room, Timothy Wiegand, had, in fact, advised them not to leave the hospital without Narcan.
“I went to Dr. Wiegand and told him they wanted us to take the class. He said, ‘You’re not leaving this hospital without Narcan.’ He showed me and my husband how to give a shot and wrote a prescription,” the mother said.
Wiegand, who was thanked in the paid obituary, recalled the incident and added that stories like MacKenzie’s occur all too often. Drugs such as Suboxone and others, he said, can reduce the craving for opiates and block overdoses, if taken appropriately.
“If it hadn’t been for Dr. Wiegand giving us the Narcan kit, we wouldn’t have had nine more months with our son,” Alison Weisbeck said, explaining that she and her husband had revived MacKenzie with the Narcan. “We each gave MacKenzie a shot.”
The final weeks
Following yet another overdose in December, Kirsten Weisbeck, who resides in New York City, sent a text to her parents:
“I love you guys so much. Tell Mac I love him when he’s conscious and that nobody’s gonna give up on him and that I want to see him.”
Alison Weisbeck said, “MacKenzie was so proud of her plans to go to medical school and become a doctor.”
MacKenzie was again admitted to rehab, this time in Buffalo, but he left just before Dec. 25. When he returned home, his parents said he could stay only if he agreed to enter long-term treatment.
A friend in Penfield opened up his apartment to MacKenzie, who remained in daily contact with his parents. In fact, at 7 p.m. a week ago Wednesday, MacKenzie and his father had a phone conversation about taking a martial arts class together.
“As soon as you get healthy, we’ll take the class,” he told his son. “When you get up tomorrow, call, and I’ll come over and get you and you can do your laundry.”
And then he added: “I love you.”
That’s how they always ended their conversations, John Weisbeck said.
When MacKenzie failed to answer repeated phone calls the next day, his parents contacted his roommate, who found him dead in the apartment.
“John and I thought maybe we could help MacKenzie one more time. We grabbed our Narcan kit and drove five minutes to the apartment. (MacKenzie’s roommate) Joe fell into my arms. The thing I remember was getting to the door and saying, ‘Look, we have Narcan,’ ”Alison Weisbeck said.
Sunday afternoon, the Weisbecks opened their home for a funeral.
“We gathered to say goodbye, all our family and friends who had unconditional love for MacKenzie,” Alison Weisbeck said.
His parents have also found comfort in the dozens of online condolences from friends and strangers praising them for publicly telling the story of MacKenzie’s addiction and fatal overdose in the paid obituary.