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Powerful memorial at Canalside honors 22,000 victims of opioid crisis

Canalside is usually a place for diversion and fun. This week, it will also be a site for reflection.

"Prescribed to Death," a national exhibit on the dangers of opioid addiction, which includes a memorial to 22,000 lives lost, opened to the public Monday in downtown Buffalo.

While the display wall of 22,000 pills, each carved into a human face to represent those who died of prescription opioid overdose in 2015, is in remembrance of the losses of the opioid crisis, organizers of the National Safety Council's exhibit hope its impact will be one that results in fewer faces going up on that wall.

"It’s not just about those that we’ve lost, but it’s those who are winning the battle as well," said NSC president and CEO Deborah Hersman. "This is a disease that is survivable and we can lose sight that with the right interventions ... there are a lot of survivors out there.

"So the one in four who are struggling or know someone who are struggling with opioid addiction, all of the stories are not as tragic as the faces that you see on the wall. There are a lot of stories of hope and survival. And it's important when you visit this memorial that you are able to celebrate that too."

They lost their son. Then they started an agency to help addicts navigate treatment

The free exhibit is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Sunday. It is in the Honda Pavilion, which houses the VIP area for Canalside Live concerts and other events. The entrance is at Main and Perry Streets.

"We're at Canalside, usually a vibrant place, a bustling place, but today we have to pause to recognize the tremendous impact of the opioid crisis all across our nation and here locally," said Mayor Byron W. Brown. "Twenty-two thousand pills, 22,000 people who were over-prescribed and died. And 22,000 reasons for us to continue to work together ... to prevent any more preventable deaths."

The exhibit, which has made previous stops in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., also includes several displays warning of the dangers of opioid abuse. There is also an opportunity for Western New Yorkers to memorialize loved ones who have died due to the opioid crisis.

"We're here because this is preventable," said Julie Snyder, vice president of Corporate Relations at BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York. "This is not cancer. This is not cardiovascular disease or diabetes. These are the things as a health plan, that we work really hard for our members to be healthy and stay healthy. We know that at one point we may have been part of the supply chain for opioids ... and we felt very compelled to be part of the solution."

One of the faces on one of the pills is that of Western New Yorker Michael Israel, who committed suicide in 2011 while struggling with opioid addiction. His parents, Avi and Julie Israel, have since become advocates in the fight against opioid crisis, founding Save the Michaels of the World, an agency that battles opioid addiction on multiple fronts.

Michael Israel is memorialized as part of the exhibit where several personal items are displayed, including his Boy Scout uniform and graduation gown from St. Joe's Collegiate Institute. Michael Israel has been a part of the exhibit since it debuted last year in Chicago.

In the latter stages of Monday's news conference to announce the exhibit's arrival in Buffalo, Avi Israel asked that his wife and some of his friends join him on the platform. They were fellow parents who had lost loved ones due to prescription opioids.

"This is a club," Israel said, "that no one wants to belong to."

An emotional Julie Israel read Michael Israel's last letter before he died of a prescription opioid overdose in 2011.

"Please remember these words," Avi Israel said. "We’re going to add more faces on to this wall unless we come together as a community, united, to make sure that every single person who suffers from addiction gets treated like a human being and gets the respect that they need to turn their life back and be a productive citizen in our community. And we can do it."

Avi Israel helped to tell Michael's story in a video that is part of the "Prescribed to Death" campaign.

"Michael is a classic story of a person who was prescribed into addiction," Avi Israel said. "When I saw the room, it was overwhelming. I was overcome by emotions. To have the room with Michael's items and clothing was very emotional. When I left Chicago I knew immediately that I needed to bring this to Buffalo."

Avi Israel called Snyder from the Chicago airport, saying just that. Snyder and other BCBS of WNY representatives visited the exhibit in Pittsburgh earlier this year and she started making phone calls on her drive home. "We witnessed firsthand the impact this exhibit has had in other cities, and Buffalo is worthy of this exhibit."

The faces in the wall include some with names printed underneath — those individuals, including Michael Israel, have additional stories that can be accessed by texting the names to a designated number on display at the exhibit. The faces imprinted on the pills on the display are detailed representations of those individuals. Most of the faces aren't individually tailored but represent the general age, race and gender of the 22,000 opioid deaths in 2015.

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m., there will be short talks by leaders in the field, followed by question-and-answer sessions at the exhibit. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York Chief Medical Officer Thomas E. Shenk on Tuesday, Horizon Health Services president Anne Constantino of Wednesday and Avi Israel on Thursday.

Melissa Weiksnar of Buffalo, who lost her daughter Amelia to a drug overdose in 2009, visited the exhibit Monday morning and hopes it can help open a dialogue about something many don't want to talk about.

"If this exhibit can empower and encourage people to say hey, I saw this exhibit, how has the epidemic touched your life?" Weiksnar said, "I think it might start a lot of conversations that are very important, because if you don't have the conversations, then you can't get people thinking and then taking action."

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