People who have lost loved ones to opioid abuse have found countless ways to honor their lives and preserve their memories.
As a town lawmaker and a grieving mother, Cheektowaga Councilwoman Christine Adamczyk was in a position to do more.
She vowed to have an addiction awareness ribbon inked on her wrist to honor the memory of her son Daniel J. Adamczyk after he died from a heroin overdose last March. It took her one year to work up the nerve to fulfill her promise.
And then Adamczyk voted to authorize the town's lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors for contributing to prescription drug abuse and the tidal wave of fatalities.
"We need to start at the top and work our way down," Adamczyk said. "The pharmaceuticals are the ones making the money. Someone must be held accountable. It is so out of control."
Her son was 26 when he overdosed in the bathroom of their Cheektowaga home one morning. Eight years before, the former emergency medical technician suffered a back injury falling down the stairs while working, his mother said.
"Daniel became addicted to painkillers, and from there he progressed to heroin," Adamczyk said. "Back then, nobody knew what to do. We had to learn through the Internet after our family doctor didn't know where to begin."
Cheektowaga joins the growing ranks of municipalities in the state and across the country who are charging the prescription drug industry with creating a public health and safety crisis. Locally, Amherst and Erie County have filed similar lawsuits.
"Whether you go back to tobacco companies or to oil companies with lead in gasoline, the companies knew there was a problem," said Brian Nowak, who is serving his first year on the Cheektowaga Town Board. "That's why we sponsored the town suit. We've had drug manufacturers basically admitting their complicity in the opioid crisis."
Daniel Adamczyk was one of seven Erie County residents who overdosed within 24 hours of each other on a deadly batch of heroin. His death on March 30, 2017 occurred after he was sober for 20 months, and after he battled addiction for seven years, his mother said.
In Cheektowaga, there have been 38 fatal overdoses since 2015, according to statistics compiled by the Cheektowaga Police Department. During that same time, 161 doses of Narcan were administered.
The town tracks all overdoses, said Lt. Brian Gould, who added that it is not unusual to see family members and addicts having their own Narcan and administering it before first responders arrive.
More than 1,000 Erie County residents have died from opioid-related drug use in the past five years, according to the county Department of Health.
In 2016, opioids (including heroin and fentanyl) killed more than 42,000 people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Forty percent of those fatalities involved a prescription pain reliever.
Nationally, there are signs that the drug industry as well as those prescribing the painkillers are taking note. In February, OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma LP announced it cut its sales force in half and will stop promoting opioids to physicians after overwhelming disapproval of its marketing addictive painkillers. In March, the American Dental Association announced on its website an interim policy on opioids that advocates prescription limits as well as continuing education for dentists.
After the death of her son, Adamczyk became a vocal advocate to increase opiate awareness. She spoke to parents of high school students on the dangers of opiate addiction at orientations in Cheektowaga, West Seneca and Lancaster. She also addressed health classes in the Cheektowaga Central School District. She's trying to keep her son's legacy alive, Adamczyk explained.
Her daughter, Brittany Adamczyk, 20, joined her at a recent school talk, Adamczyk said. Brittany's tattoo in her brother's memory was inked the day after he died, Adamczyk noted.
Cheektowaga Councilwoman Christine Adamczyk and her daughter Brittany got tattoos of purple ribbons symbolizing overdose awareness. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)Recently, the Daniel J. Adamczyk Memorial Foundation sponsored its first fundraiser. Proceeds will help the group put together the first installment of "Danny's Bag," a bag of essential toiletries for people coming out of drug rehab, said Adamczyk.
Daniel was a member of the Erie County Opiate Epidemic Task Force, and he worked to help others stay drug free, his mother said. The artist who gave her a tattoo just like her daughter's knew her son from a support group. She became accustomed to hearing from people who knew her son.
"At his wake, you don't know how may people came up to us and said: 'You don't know me, but your son saved my life,' " Adamczyk recalled.
In his memory, she hopes she can do the same thing and save others from the pain of loss she knows too well.