Sauk Valley

Project Open: Combating the opioid epidemic

Sauk Valley collective works on addiction prevention

When Jaime Smith called his wife Shirley at work on Jan. 18, 2017, he couldn’t even bring himself to tell her what he knew about their son.

“Something’s wrong with Andrew,” the retired farmer told her gently.

“You need to come home.”

Andrew Smith was a smart young man, a football player at Oregon High School, where he graduated in 2002, with a bright future, parents who loved him, and two sisters and other relatives who cherished him.

Andrew Smith of Oregon died in 2017 when he ingested too much of the opioid fentanyl.

Born Sept. 7, 1983, Andrew’s young life would end from a massive overdose of the drug fentanyl at age 33. And it was his father, now 75, who found his son dead in bed in the basement of their home in rural Oregon.

After the autopsy, the county coroner sat with the Smiths.

“We had no idea. We didn’t even know how to spell fentanyl. We were sitting in the coroner’s office. He was aghast. Andrew had a massive amount in his system,” his mother said. “The shock of what had happened was overwhelming.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pharmaceutical fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever, approved for treating severe pain, typically advanced cancer pain. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. The CDC reports that in 2019, overdoses from fentanyl are soaring and it’s becoming a common street drug, often mixed with other narcotics. Users may not realize the drug they are buying from a dealer contains a potentially lethal compound. Fentanyl is only one of many opioids causing addiction and overdoses both in homes from prescriptions and from illicit sales.

To combat the growing problem, nearly three dozen civic and social entities from Lee, Ogle, and Whiteside counties have come together in an unprecedented effort to form and implement Project OPEN, Opioid Prevention and Engagement Network. Funded by a $1 million, three-year federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grant.

Its goal is to implement multi-faceted, innovative, and sustainable prevention, treatment, and recovery strategies for those suffering from substance abuse.

The Smiths only wish that a local option like OPEN was available to them as they struggled with their son’s problems. There were many signs he had issues through the years, beginning in high school, but the Smiths trusted that these would improve as he matured. She knew early on he had tried marijuana, and she’d heard about an incident or with OxyContin. While she and her husband confronted him several times, and he admitted once he might need help, they were far too complacent with follow-up and demands, she said.

“It’s beyond words. You would never pick him out as a drug addict,” his mother said, adding that all along, it was too hard to accept.

“He was never disrespectful. We kept thinking he would find a way,” she added. It seemed to her that her son was leading two different lives, at times.

Now, they want to help others, and provided the following tips – possible indicators that your loved one may have a problem.

o Falling asleep on the couch, with an excuse, always, for being “tired”;

o Not wanting to eat;

o Always having to leave home, headed somewhere without concrete explanations;

o Identified social problems such as isolation, depression or anxiety;

o Difficulty settling on a career and/or constant job losses;

o Warnings from others who know them that something is amiss;

o Not working to ability;

o Not “fitting in” like others friends or siblings;

o Brushes with the law;

o Avoiding job opportunities where drug screening is mandatory;

o Trouble sleeping; and

o Mysterious financial issues.

Shirley warns people to not ignore the signs. Andrew’s friends, their pastor, and sisters had all warned them that something wasn’t right. Looking back, they are filled with regret and sometimes unbearable pain, finding relief only through a program called GRASP – “Grief Recovery After Substance Passing,” in St. Charles. There are not enough programs like that locally, she said.

“We didn’t really understand addiction. We took him to Rosecrance but often drove him there and dropped him off.”

She said Rosecrance offered more – such as parent group meetings, but they felt putting him there was enough. Now they know they should have, somehow, known to do more.

“Don’t think this can’t happen to you. Get counseling and stay involved with it. We should have been more proactive with that part of his life,” she said.

Andrew Smith is buried in the family plot in Dixon, but memories of what could have been haunt his parents every day.

“One hundred people a day are dying,” Shirley exclaimed, a look of disbelief coming over her face. “What’s going on? What are we doing?”

“This impacts all walks of life,” Jaime added. “All income levels, all races. The only consolation, he said, is that the struggle for their son is over.

“At least he’s at peace now”

By the Numbers

In Illinois, more than 1,900 people died from an overdose in 2018, which is almost twice the number of fatalities from car accidents. (IDPH)

Locally, overdose deaths are also rising: From 2013-2016 they were: Lee County, 14; Ogle County, 19; Whiteside County, 26 (IDPH).

Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone, which includes fentanyl, increased almost 47% from 2016 to 2017. (CDC)

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 99% of the world’s hydrocodone and about 75 % of its oxycodone. (National Women’s Health Network)

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death nationwide for those under the age of 50. (Drug Policy Alliance)

Just 2 to 3 milligrams of Fentanyl can kill a person. It blocks opioid receptors and its most dangerous side effect - like other opioids - is respiratory depression, which can quickly lead to coma and death. (drugs.com)

Over 70,230 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in 2017. Between 2013 and 2016, overdose deaths involving this drug increased by 113% annually. (drugs.com)

People who abuse prescription painkillers are 40 times more likely to abuse heroin. (CDC)