OLEAN, N.Y. – Matthew Chaffee’s story of opioid addiction, like so many others, began with painkillers.
He first took the drugs at the hospital after a nasty car accident about five years ago. Then, he turned to heroin, which plagued him during the past 18 months especially. His parents and sister started to notice the warning signs; his mother was afraid he’d fallen back into the wrong crowd. Chaffee sought treatment, and he even got clean at one point, but it did not last.
On Monday, Chaffee died of an overdose at the age of 29.
“He tried. He tried. He really did try,” his mother, Karen Materna, said. “To all you people out there than have an addiction, please, go get some help.”
Chaffee is the latest victim of this opioid epidemic, considered the worst drug crisis in American history. In small communities like Olean, the hillside city of 15,000 people in Cattaraugus County, the problem is just as serious as in the suburbs and larger cities. Chaffee, for example, is one of four people in Olean believed to have died of overdoses in the past week alone, according to Mayor William Aiello.
Across Cattaraugus County, Public Health Director Dr. Kevin Watkins said his office is aware of at least 11 suspected overdose deaths so far in 2017, which already surpasses the 10 suspected deaths recorded in all of 2016. In terms of population, overdose deaths in Cattaraugus County are not all that far behind Erie County.
On Wednesday evening, with the past week’s tragedies still fresh, a group named “Winning Olean Back” organized a vigil at Lincoln Park on Main Street. At least one hundred people attended, including the mayor, a representative from Senator Cathy Young’s office and many families who’ve lost loved ones, including Chaffee’s family.
Shannon Scott, the executive director of “Winning Olean Back,” founded the group a year ago after she lost a friend of her own to the epidemic.
“The families are struggling, and asking why. And it’s so hard, because in this small town, everybody knows each other,” Scott said. “So when it hits one person, it hits us all. I think as a community, we’re sick of losing everybody.”
Mayor Aiello, who gave a brief public statement at the vigil, said in an interview before the event that the city’s police force has been active in fighting the epidemic from all angles. On the treatment and recovery side, police officers have been trained in Narcan and carry the product to reverse the overdoses they encounter while on duty. The city and police department have also been active in youth education.
Olean Police also have a dedicated street crime unit, as well as patrol officers, tasked with keeping the drugs off the streets.
But it’s a very difficult job.
“We have dealers coming in, and they want to make money. We have people who are addicted, unfortunately, thinking we’re getting one product, but they’re not. They’re getting heroin laced with fentanyl,” Aiello said.
Dr. Watkins said the Health Department in Cattaraugus County also believes fentanyl is behind some of the deaths. His agency is working with the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office to address solutions.
The county also formed an opioid task force last year and was elated to learn of a state grant that allowed local health providers to add 20 treatment beds.
In Olean, drug dealers could face serious consequences for selling deadly products. The Cattaraugus County District Attorney has already brought manslaughter charges against two people for selling products that led to deaths, and the Olean Police Department has not been afraid to make arrests, either.
“We’ve made numerous arrests,” Aiello said. “And it seems for every arrest, one or two more show up.”
Despite the efforts, dealers continue to target the Olean area, and people from this community continue to die as a result.
Matthew Chaffee would have turned 30 next week. Instead, he leaves behind two young daughters and a grieving family, which is now left wondering what they can possibly do to slow this epidemic.
“We need communities to get more involved. Anybody who’s out there struggling, get the help you need,” his father, Michael Materna said, “so you don’t have to go through what we’re going through.”