BUFFALO, NY - As communities across the country continue to hear about the fatal overdoses caused by heroin and other opiates, Western New York remembered those lost in a poignant gathering in downtown Buffalo.
Modeled after an undertaking in New England, “Black Balloon Day” was marked outside of old County Hall Monday evening, with a gathering of speakers and hundreds of black balloons symbolic of those lost to addiction.
“This is an event to provide awareness and healing for people who have lost someone due to this dreadful epidemic," said Debra Smith, a member of the parent task force which operates as part of Erie County’s Opiate Epidemic Task Force.
Despite the numerous resources being dedicated to the problem, which has been officially declared a public health crisis, it continues to claim lives at an alarming level.
According to the Erie County Health Department, there were 311 suspected heroin overdose deaths in Erie County in 2016, with 270 of those actually confirmed as such.
Thus far, with 2017 not even three months old, the number of suspected cases has already reached 67, which reflects an average of about one per day.
"We should not consider opioid addiction a bad behavior," said Dr. Gale Burstein, the Erie County Health Commissioner.
"Most people become addicted because of using a narcotic pain prescription from a legitimate prescription that a health care provider gave them. The prescriber advised them to take the medication, and they became addicted to these powerful drugs," Burstein said.
When the prescription runs out and the patient is unable to obtain more, some have turned to heroin with fatal results as street heroin is being mixed with more potent narcotics such as fentanyl.
“I think that needs to be talked about more," said Lisa Podwika, whose 22 year old son Jimmy continues to battle the throws of an addiction which has landed him in rehab, jail, and even once nearly ended his life until he received a Narcan shot to reverse a near fatal overdose.
“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone… this is really evil," she told WGRZ-TV while attempting without success to hold back tears which streamed down her face as she sat at her kitchen table in Cheektowaga.
Like many others, her son got hooked on a prescription medication, then turned to heroin when he could get no more, with the addiction so powerful that was arrested for burglary after breaking into the home of his grandparents in an attempt to steal money to feed his habit.
"I was watching my son die and…you just don’t know when it's gonna happen. And that’s not a maybe. If these people don’t get help, it’s going to happen,” she said.
The dream amid this nightmare for the Podwikis is to see their son pull through in his latest attempt to keep clean.
Debra Smith can no longer dream that for her son, Nathaniel.
“He passed away in September of 2015 at the age of 26," she said, explaining that Nathaniel, who was in college became addicted to narcotic prescribed to him by a doctor for kidney stones.
“I think he went to the streets to find something to relieve the pain of withdrawal,” she said, confirming that her son progressed not using heroin before dying of an overdose.
“I miss him every day,” she said.
“We are making progress,” insisted Burstein. “But it took about 20 years for us to get to this point (of the epidemic) and it will probably take us another 20 years to get out of it."