As reported by the Palm Beach Post earlier this month, a total of 216 people died of a heroin or fentanyl-related overdose in Palm Beach County last year alone - this amounts to 1 individual ( teenager, man or woman) dying every other day in the county. This unprecedented opioid epidemic that has devastated countless families is more lethal than all traffic crashes and homicides in the county. 35-year old Gregory Gartside of Boca Raton was the first to succumb to this horrible disease. On January 1st, 2015 his parents returned from a party to find the Florida Atlantic University student dead of a heroin overdose.
Among the 216 people whose lives were claimed by an opioid-related overdose in 2015 were young men and women from wealthy families, parents, teens, ex-police officers, drug counselors and Iraqi war veterans. Former Air Force engineer and drug counselor Clint Parker died on December 5th. Christopher Folsom Jr, a father of 4-year old twins, Donreece Newman, the son of a gospel artist, Courtney Walraven, who was getting ready to seek treatment, Nicholas Ricciardi who passed away with a copy of the Narcotics Anonymous 12-step book next to him as well as fantasy football fan Jagger Sharpless, all succumbed to the disease last year.
These people tragically passed away alone in their cars or in the locked bedrooms of treatment facilities where they had sought help for their opioid use disorders, but mostly they passed away quietly in their homes. Many of these victims of both the disease and stigma, mostly middle-class, white and young Americans traveled from other states to get treatment in Palm Beach County, known as one of the world's major recovery destinations.
The heroin and prescription opioid epidemic is killing a generation, but sadly, the community seems to have adopted the passive approach - Palm Beach County residents are not marching in the street demanding county officials to take the necessary actions to properly address the opiate crisis in their community, such as expanding indigent treatment options, making Narcan available to all first responders and launching clean syringe programs.
The stigma associated with opioid addiction, which is a poorly understood chronic brain disorder, can prevent people struggling with this disease from seeking the medication-assisted treatment they need, can prevent local authorities from providing this treatment and it can prevent teachers and parents from candidly speaking with kids about the real dangers of opiates.
According to medical examiners' figures, 2,333 people lost their lives to heroin, morphine, and fentanyl in the state of Florida in 2015. Whereas in 2010, an individual with heroin poisoning symptoms showed up at an emergency room every 2 days, in 2015 it was one about every 90 minutes. Except for medical examiners, no one is counting the dead in the county. These victims remain invisible in the public eye, rarely mentioned by name.
But despite the epidemic's devastating local toll, Palm Beach County and the entire state continues to move slowly in terms of acknowledging the scope and impact of this epidemic, let alone pro-actively fighting it. The county and state's deficient response to the opioid crisis is in sharp contrast to the response of the politically conservative towns along the Appalachians, where even the smallest communities have revamped law enforcement strategies and have moved to provide medication-assisted treatment to all those seeking help for their opioid use disorders.
In Huntington, West Virginia for instance, Mayor Steve Williams shakes the hands of all people struggling with an opioid use disorder that he meets and even holds their hands for a while, telling them that he and the entire community are not going to let them go. By contrast, in a recent meeting, a member of the county's Heroin Overdose Task Force cruelly suggested buying opioid users bus tickets so that they could leave Palm Beach County.
While county leaders still fail to assume leadership roles in local efforts to prevent and reduce opioid abuse and overdoses, the epidemic continues to claim innocent lives in Palm Beach County. In mid-January 2016, Maggie Marie Saitta posted on her Facebook page " Everything heals - your body, mind, and soul; your happiness always comes back". The former Lake Worth Christian School student fatally overdosed one week later; she was only 18 years old.