Photo: Denise Civiletti

It was only fitting that the first community-based presentation and Narcan training held by Michael’s Hope was held on Michael Maffetone’s home turf. And it was only fitting that the deceased man’s hometown community gave the response it gave last night, when a crowd of more than 100 people packed the Mattituck American Legion hall to learn about heroin and receive training from Suffolk County EMS Service on how to use the lifesaving overdose reversal drug, Narcan.

'This has been a powerful week,' Paul Maffetone told a standing-room-only crowd at the Mattituck American Legion last night. Photo: Denise Civiletti
‘This has been a powerful week,’ Paul Maffetone told a standing-room-only crowd at the Mattituck American Legion last night.
Photo: Denise Civiletti

“This has been a powerful week,” Michael’s Hope founder Paul Maffetone, of Laurel told the crowd.

Inspired by the tragedy of his older brother’s heroin addiction and overdose death, Maffetone has a passion to do everything in his power to raise awareness about heroin addiction and help others prevent the tragedy that befell his family. Last year, he and a handful of friends started Michael’s Hope.

“This week, we held our first community training and we got nonprofit status,” Maffetone announced last night. The group had its tax-exempt status approved by the IRS this week, he said. “That took a lot, a lot of work,” he said.

Michael’s Hope has already begun doing programs in area schools, bringing its message of hope to youth who need to hear it most. Last night the group brought its message to the community for the first time in a public venue, where three young adults in their 20s shared their own stories of battling the demon of heroin addiction.

Jordan Stierle of Ronkonkoma recalled feeling lost and helpless as a teen and finding some kind of comfort and a sense of belonging in drugs.

He also remembers feeling hopeless about his future as an addict — so hopeless that he wasn’t sure he wanted to live. And that inspired more reckless behavior, including seeing how long he could drive with his eyes closed on the L.I. Expressway, tempting fate.

Jason Stierle shares his story of heroin addiction and being saved by Narcan several years ago. Photo: Denise Civiletti
Jason Stierle shares his story of heroin addiction and being saved by Narcan several years ago. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“I’d drive to Queens to pick up my stuff,” Stierle recalled last night. “I’d close my eyes and count. I got to 17 once,” he said. His “insane” behavior, he now knows, was a manifestation of his lack of will to continue living as an addict, in the grips of a substance that had total control over his life.

When Stierle overdosed one night, an EMT administered Narcan and saved his life. He was lucky. But he didn’t see it that way — at least not for a while. When he opened his eyes on a hospital gurney, all he could think about was how he was going to get his next fix.

“In the hospital, I opened my eyes and I was like, oh man, this sucks,” Stierle recalled. “I knew I got hit with Narcan. I knew I was going to be sick. And I also knew the stuff I had on me was gone. And now I’d have to go through all that stealing, all that lying, all that manipulating again.”

While he’d like to say he got sober that day and his life changed, it didn’t, Stierle said. He struggled with addiction for two years after that overdose — in spite of the fact that he almost lost his life to heroin. He said he felt like he had two choices in life: suicide, or just accepting being miserable for the rest of his life, living it as an addict. For two more years he was in and out of detox, rehab and homeless shelters.

“It’s a tough spot to be in,” Stierle said. “No one understands me and I don’t even understand myself, so how do you get help? If I didn’t understand what’s going on and they don’t undersatand whats going on, how are they going to help me?”

Stierle found help in other addicts — and he, in turn, helps other addicts.

“If it wasn’t for people like these guys,” he said, gesturing to Trevor Murray of Coram, Samantha Paulus of Port Jefferson and Kristina Amato of Commack, “I probably wouldn’t be here right now, because they help me on a daily basis.”

“I didn’t want to be viewed as a weak person, a junkie, a drug addict.. so I didn’t reach out,” Samantha Paulus said of her resistance to asking for help. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Paulus, who described herself as “the girl that never wanted to do drugs,” echoed Stierle’s sentiment.

She said before she became an addict, she didn’t understand addiction, didn’t understand what it was like to be “stuck.”

“I thought I could still stop when I wanted to and when I couldn’t, I was just confused,” Paulus said.

She said she wouldn’t be sober if she hadn’t met Stierle. Along the path of addiction and recovery, she said, “this is what happens. You meet people who come together for a common reason and just want to see change.”

Paulus urged families to approach addiction “with compassion instead of judgment.”

She recalled being afraid to seek help for fear of what people would think of her. “I didn’t want to be viewed as a weak person, a junkie, a drug addict. I didn’t want to be viewed as those things, so I didn’t reach out,” Paulus said.

“One of our goals is to be that bridge between being stuck and being able to get help, so that people aren’t scared to reach out. Maybe we can prevent a couple of people from losing their lives due to this disease.”

Mike and Toni, who lost their 31-year-old son Chris to a heroin overdose last year, sat quietly listening to the stories shared by Stierle, Paulus and Trevor Murray of Coram.

They had no idea their son was using heroin, they said, until they got the phone call that would change their lives forever.

“He was gone,” Toni said. “It was too late.”

“His friends knew. No one said anything,” said Mike.

“We buried him in August.”

Crowd trained to use Narcan: 110 kits distributed

Suffolk EMS director Robert Delagi demonstrates how to prepare a Narcan dose. Photo: Denise Civiletti
Suffolk EMS director Robert Delagi demonstrates how to prepare a Narcan dose. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Following the presentations, Robert Delagi, director of Suffolk County EMS and Public Health Emergency Preparedness explained how opiates like heroin work on the human brain, why people overdose and how and why Narcan reverses overdose.

He described in detail how to recognize an overdose and what to do — and what not to do — if you are with or find someone who has overdosed on opiates.

People who have overdosed on heroin or another opiate will be barely breathing, if at all. They will have pinpoint pupils. They will likely be unconscious.

The first thing to do is call 911 and then administer Narcan as quickly as possible, he said.

Delagi then went through step-by-step instructions on how to administer the life-saving medication. He and his staff distributed overdose rescue kits to all who signed up for them. The kit contains two Narcan doses, syringes without needles, an intranasal mucosal atomizer and instructions.

Narcan has been in use by EMTs and doctors for decades. It is safe to use, Delagi said. You can’t overdose on Narcan and if it’s administered to someone who is not actually experiencing an opiate overdose, it won’t hurt them.

In 2012 when the intranasal mucosal atomizer device was made available, the use of Narcan to reverse overdoses began to increase dramatically. Last year, Delagi said, there were 536 Narcan overdose reversals by the EMS system in Suffolk County. “That’s a lot of reversals.

“The unfortunate statistic is that our deaths from opioid overdoses continue to rise commensurate with the amount of reversals,” he said. “So it almost feels like we’re not making a difference. But that doesn’t deter us. We‘re still saving one life at a time.”

That’s the motto of his unit, Delagi said – one life at a time.

In November, federal regulators approved a nasal spray that comes in a single-dose plastic dispenser bottle, which simplifies the administration of the drug.

Narcan will soon be available over the counter in certain pharmacies, including CVS and Rite-Aid, Delagi said.

People who receive training by Suffolk EMS and are given a certification card will be able to get their doses replaced by the county at no charge if they use them or when the drug’s expiration date arrives.

Before last night, when Delagi estimated 110 home Narcan kits would be distributed in Mattituck, Suffolk EMS has put “over 4,500 kits on the street outside of the EMS response system.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.