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Battling the heroin epidemic

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“You don’t have to use a lot to overdose or die from it.” These plain and simple words were stated by Scott Goings, City of Jackson police officer at a program put on by Brooklyn Presbyterian Church titled “Heroin: It Affects Us All.”

Goings should know. He saw his ex-wife spiral from a prescription user of OxyContin for kidney stones to a heroin addict. In one recent 12-hour shift, he had four heroin-related calls.

“We have learned the hard way that there are families in our area that are struggling alone and there is no one for them to have a conversation with,” said Robin Shear, BPC youth director and coordinator of the program. “It makes me sad – we have people in our midst that are hurting privately. I am glad we have some unity and support – its way overdue.”

Mike Hirst, who founded the group Andy’s Angels, lost his son Andy to a heroin overdose on May 17, 2010. He was 24. The family is from the “sleepy little town” of Grass Lake.

Hirst now speaks to anyone willing to hear his message on the dangers of these drugs. He was the keynote speaker at BPC’s event.

“He had everything and lost everything in a matter of 18 months,” he said of his son, whose ashes he carries with him and displays to the groups when he speaks.

“He had names of 30 kids from Grass Lake using heroin within eight miles from where he lived,” he said. “I can drive five minutes from here and buy heroin.”

When asked what is one thing our average reader could do to help in this fight, Hirst said, “First get rid of all unused opioids from your medicine cabinet and dispose of in the drop boxes that have been placed in the county (Columbia Township Hall; Grass Lake Village Hall are two in the area). Statistics show that most kids get their first taste of opioids from someone’s unused prescription left in a medicine cabinet. The next thing would be to not take an opioid for minor pain. Take a non-narcotic to start with. If pain is unbearable then move to opioid if necessary. They have now proven to be highly addictive for anyone.”

“Our goal is to really try to raise awareness about this issue – that it’s not just an urban problem – it affects people in our communities,” said Rev. Frank Rupnik, senior pastor of BPC. “So we are raising awareness, educating, and trying to get the resources out there.”

Speaking of educating, Hirst shared a lot of staggering statistics with the audience, like this one: Statistically, you have a better chance of losing your son or daughter to an opiate overdose than a car accident. Or how about this one: Every 25 minutes a baby is born addicted to opiates.

Another panelist, Brandon Hughes, shared more. He is currently the fire chief for Liberty Township and has worked in emergency medicine for 10 years. Hughes said there were 500 documented heroin overdoses in Jackson County in 2016.

“We can run 20 to 30 overdoses in one day,” he said. “It’s overtaxing our system.”

Adam Howe, a recovering heroin addict, was on the panel of speakers for the event.

“I’ve buried 23 friends in the last three years,” he said tragically. Howe said when his sister had her wisdom teeth pulled, he replaced her Vicodin with Ibuprofen.

“The best way to describe it is an awful relationship,” he said of his addiction. “I wouldn’t wish heroin addiction on my worst enemy.”

Hirst said getting opiates or heroin becomes the average everyday lifestyle for many 18-35-year-old middle class white kids – the group with the highest rate of incidence.

He said their lifestyle consists of, “I got to get up in the morning and get my dope. I got to call my drug dealer. I don’t have the money, so I have to steal the money. I have to meet him and then use the drug. And do it all over again tomorrow.”

“This becomes a daily cycle that they cannot break,” Hirst said. “Nothing else goes on in their life. Just this same program every single day. That’s their lifestyle. And that lifestyle becomes exciting for them.”

Mike Hirst told an audience at Brooklyn Presbyterian Church, “I can drive five minutes from here and buy heroin.” Hirst lost his son Andy to a heroinoverdose in 2010 and founded the group “Andy’s Angels” to fight the opioid epidemic.

Hirst said four out of every five heroin addicts in this country got their dependency to opiates through prescription drugs. Those are big numbers. After 15 days of using, a person can develop both mental and physical addictions to opiates, he said.

“This addiction creates a world of depression, guilt, and loss of self-esteem,” says the website for Andy’s Angels. It continues, “The addict believes the only escape they have is to use the drug to forget the misery their life has become.” Hirst said addicts shoot or sniff about $150 worth of opiates daily.

“People really need to understand that those simple little pills that a doctor gives you that seem to be safe aren’t any different than taking heroin,” Hirst said emphatically. “We get those two terms mixed up all the time. Heroin gets the big name.”

Hirst said he can’t tell you how many full-blown heroin addicts – including football players, basketball players, cheerleaders, 4.0 GPA students – had an athletic injury and were given a prescription opiate for their injury and ended up being an addict.

“It happens all the time,” he said.

One key in the battle is staying off opioids in the first place.  “Why drop the nuclear bomb on a little bit of pain right off the bat? Let’s go with something safe,” he says. “You’re the customer out there. You’ve got to be educated on your own health. Just because somebody (your doctor) says you have to take a narcotic doesn’t mean you have to take a narcotic. Ask them to try something else first.”

I get people telling me all the time, ‘Mike, you’re getting people scared to death of these pills’. And I tell them, ‘You should be scared to death of these pills because they’re killing about 33,000 Americans every year.

There is also hope in curbing opiate supply on the streets. Former addict Adam Howe says there are more resources out there for people to turn to for help, too.

“The stigma is starting to be broken,” he said of the heroin epidemic.

“Despite the awful, awful things that have happened in this community, one of the bright spots is

Liberty Township fire chief and senior paramedic for Jackson Community Ambulance Brandon Hughes said he has run 20 to 30 heroin overdose emergencies in one day. “It’s overtaxing our system,” he said.

that our teenagers are not using at a rate we see in other counties,” said Shelly Milligan, substance abuse educator, a.k.a. “the drug lady” in Jackson County. “There are a lot of things that Jackson County is doing right.

“We have a very, very strong Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition,” she continued. The coalition has representatives from Henry Ford Allegiance Health, law enforcement, the prosecuting attorney’s office, and schools’ prevention programs.

“We all work together in terms of providing resources where necessary,” she said. “We capitalize on and maximize the resources that we have. We have an extremely smart, well-connected law enforcement and advocate community. The more you educate people about the risks, the signs, what to do, and give them resources, the more you drive down demand. Just like a product in a store.”

And driving down demand is one thing Brooklyn Presbyterian Church would like to see happen.

“This is going to be the first of many conversations about this epidemic,” said Shear. “This is the tip of the iceberg. I really hope that we come together again and hear more stories about lives that are being changed for the better. I think there is a lot of inspiration in that. We need to continue to reach out, continue to understand, and know what direction to point people and fuel the resources into the programs that are working.”

Added Rev. Rupnik. “If people start discussing it and a few people get the resources that they needed, then it’s a success.”

John Lesinski, active in the Celebrate Recovery program in Grass Lake, agreed.

“I’m really excited about this type of outreach because one of the missing elements is church being involved in any type of addictions,” he said. That’s the key to success. You got to have something – why not take a chance on Jesus Christ. It seems to work!

For more information on Andy’s Angels, visit andysangels.net. For a complete list of treatment centers, support groups, ways to get involved, facts and resources, and family support, contact Brooklyn Presbyterian Church at 517-592-2801 for a copy of the program.

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2 Comments

  1. Tina Ronders

    April 6, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    Thank you for the coverage on this program. Much appreciated.

    • John Hummer

      April 10, 2017 at 11:01 pm

      You’re welcome, Tina.

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