Stock photo: David Dilbert/Pexels

Saturday is International Overdose Awareness Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness of drug overdoses and to commemorate those who’ve lost their lives to overdoses.

By raising awareness and educating the public, organizers hope to help remove the stigma of addiction, a health crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. alone over the past two decades.

International Overdose Awareness Day was started in 2001 by a woman in Melbourne, Australia. In 2019, the day will be observed all over the globe with events such as vigils, memorial services, walks and other community gatherings. More than 30 events are taking place in New York, with one scheduled for 6 p.m. tomorrow at the bay beach at Smith Point Park.

The Smith Point event is hosted by a group called the Beating Hearts. Last year, the first ceremony they hosted on Overdose Awareness Day drew 70 people, according to Beating Hearts cofounder Janet D’Agostino of Patchogue. Like every one of the group’s members, D’Agostino lost a loved one to an overdose. Her son Vaughn died of a heroin overdose in July 2015, four days before his 25th birthday.

“My son had some health issues,” D’Agostino said in an interview Thursday. “He had seven surgeries. Each time, they gave him Oxycontin for pain. He got addicted. The heroin started about six or seven months before he died.” The horrific path from prescription painkiller addiction to heroin addiction is one traveled by so many addicts.

“As far as I’m concerned, Purdue Pharma should be crucified,” D’Agostino said. “They created oxycodone and then falsified information about the addictiveness of it. The result is disastrous. We’re killing a whole generation now.”

This week, news broke of a multi-billion dollar settlement proposal being negotiated by the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company blamed for much of the opioid epidemic, and the local governments who are parties to about 2,000 federal lawsuits. Also this week, a trial judge in Oklahoma, ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay the state $572 million in the first trial of a manufacturer of prescription painkillers. The judge ruled that Johnson & Johnson used “false, misleading, and dangerous marketing campaigns” that “caused exponentially increasing rates of addiction, overdose deaths” and neonatal opioid withdrawal.

The epidemic proportions of the opioid crisis have in some way worked to remove some of the stigma.

“It’s hard to find people who haven’t been affected by addiction in one way or another,” D’Agostino said. “It affects every demographic, every walk of life.”

After her son’s death, D’Agostino sought help from an organization called Neighborhood House, a Sayville-based group that last year opened up an East End location in Riverhead, in space donated by Peconic Bay Medical Center.

Neighborhood House runs bereavement groups for people who’ve lost loved ones to overdose or suicide. D’Agostino said it has been an invaluable part of her recovery from the unbearable pain of losing her child.

“Being with other people that have gone through what you’ve gone through — by itself, that’s huge,” D’Agostino said. “People can be compassionate, but the understanding is not there unless it’s happened to you.”

Neighborhood House runs a closed eight-week program and during that time, participants form a bond that becomes like a family, D’Agostino said. “It’s very unique. I’m still connected to these people after four years.”

Neighborhood House executive director Michelle Virga said her organization’s phones continue to “ring off the hook” with grieving people seeking help.

The group starts each night with a group dinner cooked by volunteers. They eat together and then go into breakout groups. Virga says she groups people together based on their relationship to the loved one and the manner of death — overdose versus suicide. The last hour of the night, the group comes together again for meditation, art and music therapy.

“It’s cathartic,” Virga said. “The transformation we see in people is amazing.”

D’Agostino said she can’t imagine surviving the experience of losing her son to an overdose without Neighborhood House and other bereavement groups she’s participated in.

“But while we were going through the addiction itself,” she recalls, “there was nowhere to turn.”

They system, she said, is “brutally broken.” There are not enough beds. The insurance companies are “disgusting,” she said. “They just don’t get it. Unless they have a child who’s been an addict, they don’t get it. When somebody says they need help, you have to get them help right then and there — or you lose the opportunity,” she said.

“My son would be crying. He’d say, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I have to get help.’ I would take off from work and drive him from one end of the island to the other, looking for a place that could take him. But there were never enough beds,” D’Agostino recalled.

“As a parent, you’re to supposed to fix it and make it right. But when your child is an addict, it’s up to them. They have to want it bad enough to do it. It’s the hardest thing in the world to watch your child kill himself,” D’Agostino said.

“My son, like so many others, was a beautiful, sensitive, loving, smart kid,” she said. “They’re not low-lives or stupid. They don’t come from bad families. But there’s nowhere to turn if you don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to privately place your child in a program.”

The Wellbridge Addiction Research and Treatment Center under construction in Calverton. Courtesy photo

That’s one thing the people developing Wellbridge Addiction Treatment and Research in Calverton are hoping to change. The center, unique in its alignment with a major healthcare system, Northwell Health, is scheduled to open in January.

“Addiction is a treatable condition,” Wellbridge medical director Dr. Harshal Kirane said in an interview Wednesday.

Overdoses are preventable, he said. “In order to prevent overdose and the most extreme consequences of addiction, there has to be a commitment of the community to recognize addiction as a disease.” The stigma of addiction is a stumbling block because it results in “the inability to assess or identify substance issues in a family network or at school or work. That allows the issues to escalate unchecked,” Kirane said.

“At the core of the Wellbridge mission is to identify the best practices and knowledge we have for addiction care,” he said. “Over the course of the last several decades, there’s been a tremendous amount of scientific knowledge and clinical knowledge, but implementation at the bedside has encountered a lot of barriers,” Kirane said. Among the barriers are the stigma of addiction and a lack of medical training in addiction care.

“Most American physicians through the course of medical school and residency, on average eight years, will receive one to three hours of formal instruction in addiction,” he said.

Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell has changed that model. The average graduating medical student receives 32 hours of training in addiction and pain management, he said.

“We look to overcome the barriers so we can implement the knowledge,” Kirane said.

One area of focus is the utilization of medicine-assisted therapies, he said. Medicine-assisted therapies decrease the risk of continued use of opioids as well as overdose events, overdose deaths and related suicides — as well as loss of employment and incarceration.

“Despite this body of knowledge, it’s very rarely used,” Kirane said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find other areas of medicine where there’s such a gap.”

Another focus has to be training people in the community in naloxone (Narcan) administration. About half of all overdose deaths — 60,000 in 2017 alone — are witnessed, Kirane said. But the witnesses didn’t have access to or training in administering naloxone. “That’s 30,000 deaths that might have been prevented,” he said.

“I view naloxone training and access as a skill set as essential as CPR,” Kirane said.

In Riverhead, police, EMS and members of the community have been trained in naloxone administration. Regular training sessions for community members have been held in a variety of locations. Another one is coming up on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Riverhead Free Library. Residents who complete the training are provided with a free naloxone kit.

Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Chief Bill Wilkinson said this week that EMTs in the ambulance corps rarely have to administer the lifesaving drug.

“Most of the time, the person’s family member, friend or the police officer has already administered naloxone,” Wilkinson said.

“That may mean that community outreach has been effective,” Kirane said.

“Addiction is an illness that can impact anyone,” he said. “This is a human problem. It’s not identified by any locale or nationality. In the face of that, it requires really human solutions — trying to mobilize the entire community to be educated, to understand the risks that various medications pose, understanding the tools that are available and being able to utilize them in the most effective way for any given person,” Kirane said. “That’s our main message about Overdose Awareness Day.”

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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.