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Amid opioid epidemic, an Amherst family's anguish takes them to the White House

WASHINGTON — Thousands of Americans write to the president every year — but few of those letters result in a White House visit and a high-profile appearance behind the commander in chief as he unveils a dramatic new government policy.

But that's just what happened to Dr. Thomas G. White of Amherst and his wife, Sandra, on Thursday.

Two months and two days after their 27-year-old daughter, Hilary, died of a drug overdose, the Whites stood behind President Trump in the East Room of the White House and listened to him declare the opioid epidemic a public health emergency.

Still consumed with grief over the loss of their daughter, the Whites could at least take heart in the president's words and promises.

"We're so happy that the president is taking an action as strong as this," Sandra White said.

Trump outlined a multifaceted plan to address the opioid epidemic — with a beefed-up federal effort on prevention and treatment, as well as a law-enforcement crackdown on drug dealers.

"He made it clear that this is not something that you can fix quickly, not something you can just throw money at," said Thomas White, who works at Buffalo Medical Group and serves as the Buffalo Bills team physician.

Instead, White said, Trump did the right thing by laying out a long-term, multifaceted approach to the problem. He said he was especially impressed at the plan's emphasis on prevention and on cracking down on drug dealers.

"They've got to get the suppliers off the streets," he said.

Trump's plan sounded good, too, to Sandra White, who said that as her daughter struggled with addiction for years, "the system failed us."

Hilary White's addiction, like so many others, started with a prescription drug — in her case, hydrocodone.

She went through several treatment programs over the years, including Narcotics Anonymous peer counseling sessions where some of the participants weren't seriously committed to their recovery, her father said.

By this summer, though, Hilary's parents thought she was recovering, only to see her relapse and experience a fatal overdose on Aug. 24.

After that, "I promised my daughter I would be her voice," Sandra White said.

She expressed her voice first in a letter to President Trump a week after her daughter's death, telling the president about her daughter and listing her concerns about the growing opioid epidemic.

A short time afterwards — and much to her surprise — she got a call from the office of Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president.

"I was in awe," Sandra White said. "I was very honored."

That initial conversation led last week to an invitation to Thursday's event, where the Whites gathered at the White House with other families who had lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic.

They met and spoke with Conway, Housing Secretary Ben Carson and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who chairs Trump's commission on the opioid crisis.

Then, the Whites filed into the White House's East Room for Trump's presentation, where Sandra White stood behind the president, holding her daughter's portrait for all the dignitaries and press to see.

Hilary White smiles in that photo — looking every bit the warmhearted young woman her parents describe her as being.

Yet Hilary White, a Canisius College graduate student preparing for a career in mental health counseling, is one more face of an epidemic that's believed to have claimed 280 lives so far in Erie County this year, an epidemic that's claiming more than 100 American lives a day.

"This disease is affecting every walk of life," Sandra White noted.

Knowing that, the Whites want to know what the world lost when they lost their daughter.

"I want my daughter to be remembered for who she was," said Sandra White, still clutching her daughter's picture. "She was a wonderfully kind, sweet soul. That's who Hilary really was."

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