Alone in his bedroom, a mere 20 feet away from both his mom and dad, Michael had taken a gun and shot himself. His father “busted through” the door and held his son as he lay dying from the self-inflicted wound.
That was June 4, 2011.
Monday night, Avi Israel recounted the events preceding Michael’s death at a public forum centering on the heroin and opioid issue facing the county. Approximately 75 people were in attendance at Attica High School, along with Sen. Patrick Gallivan, and officials from the Wyoming County Sheriff’s Department, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Attica Police Department, and Christy Ratajczak, licensed clinical social worker for Northpointe Council Inc..
The forum was spearheaded by Attica resident Sandy Prusak. While she said she didn’t know much about drugs, she could at least get the “people in the know” together and have a conversation about it.
“We have a real (heroin) problem in our community, state, nation. While we may be limited in what we can do nationally, we can do something about it in our community,” Gallivan said. “There isn’t a family or neighborhood that isn’t touched in some way.
“Thirty-four years ago I was sworn in to be a (New York State) Trooper. I spent some time on the road, undercover in narcotics, served on a parole board, and have been in the Legislature for six years...I’ve seen nothing like this in 34 years.”
According to national statistics, 130 people died every day In 2014 from heroin or opioid overdoses.
“This isn’t just a city problem,” said Captain Edward Till of the Wyoming County Drug Task Force. “Six years ago, we didn’t see it (heroin in Wyoming County) as much. However, this year alone we’ve dealt with it 30 to 35 times. There have been five deaths related to heroin overdoses and 26 overdoses law enforcement knows about that are from opioids.”
In a study done in 2015 by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, drug overdose death rates increased fivefold between 1980 and 2008 nationally. According to the study – The Prescription Opioid Epidemic: An Evidence-Based Approach – at that time, drug overdose was the leading cause of injury death.
In 2012, approximately 2.1 million Americans were addicted to opioid pain relievers. Also in 2012, an additional 467,000 were addicted to heroin. The study notes those figures do not include close to 2.5 million who may be suffering from an opioid use disorder. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) excludes those receiving legitimate opioid prescriptions.
“Michael was going to school to study architecture. He wasn’t a junkie. But he was an addict,” Israel said. “Michael suffered from Crohn’s disease. He was prescribed into addiction by three doctors. One prescribed oxycodone for the pain. One prescribed Xanax for his anxiety. And one prescribed him something for his depression.
“This boy was getting pills at the age of 18. He didn’t have to look anywhere. He just had to call the doctor and tell him he was in pain or anxious or depressed.”
Israel didn’t question Michael when he asked him for money to get his prescriptions. He said he didn’t pay attention to when the prescriptions were billed through his health insurance plan. In 2009 it wasn’t unheard of to go to multiple pharmacies to fill multiple prescriptions for opioids.
“When we saw the explosive of prescription drug abuse throughout our state, people stood up and wanted something to be done about it,” Gallivan said. “I-Stop legislation was enacted and electronic prescription mandates were put into effect. But, the unintended consequence is what we are living now. As the price of prescription drugs went up, the cheaper alternative is heroin.”
“You are prescribed something to manage an issue,” Ratajczak. “We are all born with a threshold about things and some have a higher threshold to be immune to addiction or to make them an addictive person.
“It’s (addiction) influenced by physiological factors, a doctor, a friend. It’s a multifaceted issue coupled with predisposition. Chemically speaking the drug is attaching itself to receptors then it overtakes the receptors and that’s when the need becomes great.”
In addition to I-Stop (Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing -- Prescription Monitoring Program) National Prescription Drug Take Back Days are held at least twice a year locally and nationally. Additionally, the Wyoming County Sheriff’s Office installed collection boxes in the lobby of the Public Safety Building, Main Street, Warsaw.
“If you can start educating people about prescription drugs people are more apt to get rid of their old drugs during the take back days,” said DEA Agent John P. Flickinger. “One hit on crack and people feel like their an addict for life. Some people react like that with prescription drugs.”
Even with all the attention the opioid issue is generating, Flickinger said “lots of kids” still talk about having parties where they trade pills. Fifty-two percent of people are getting it free from a friend or relative. Subsequently, officials say, once they become addicted, they begin to get the drugs from other sources.
“When kids use it (opioids) it will change their brain forever because they still have a developing brain,” Flickinger said. “It’s dangerous because it can set up a cycle of abuse their whole life.”
Along with education and treatment, enforcement is also needed, officials say.
“We needed a multifaceted front to combat this,” Gallivan said. “Enforcement would hold people accountable for their role in an overdose death in the community.”
As it stands right now, it’s only under federal statue that a heroin dealer can be charged for their clients’ overdose death. The Senate is currently working toward creating a similar State statue.
“While we know it's a disease or sickness or addiction, some people don't care and they need to be held accountable,” Gallivan said.
According to Task Force officials, there have been 37 opioid- or heroin-related arrests this year. Of that figure, 21 were male and 17 were female, whereas years ago, males were arrested at a higher rate. Currently, county arrests for drug offenses are getting closer to a 50/50 ratio.
Jail officials say the influx in arrests has “severely affected” the female portion of the county’s inmate population with 80 to 90 percent being jailed for heroin-related crimes.
“A year ago, our agents ran into a dealer who gave their 3-year-old child to them for collateral during a drug deal,” Till said. “And, more and more drug busts have children in the home.”
“Before last year, people were dying from prescription drug overdoses. Now it’s heroin,” Flickinger said. “We do enforcement to go after the largest traffickers. Less drugs on the street, the less likely someone is to use them. People who start with opioids, often turn to heroin.”
Attica Police Chief Dean Hendershott, who has spent his entire police career in Attica, can pinpoint the year the epidemic reached the village.
Hendershott says, when a local man came back to home from college in 2003, he brought back more than new knowledge. He also came saddled with a heroin addiction. Three weeks later while at a party with six other people he overdosed and died. Since that time, three of those people have died and the others are still “strung out.”
“There have been 28 overdoses in the village, and 22 suicides, of which, one third are the result of heroin since 2003,” Hendershott said.
In December 2010, Michael had gone up to his father and told him he was addicted to his pain medication. At that same time, Israel was beginning to hear about people getting addicted to their pain medication – his son was one of the those affected.
Israel took Michael to the doctor to see what could be done about Michael’s addiction.
“We told the doctor he was addicted and the doctor said he ‘knew’ what he was doing and kept prescribing the medication. They (the doctors) didn’t get educated about addiction, they just prescribed the drugs.”
The Israel’s got educated, talked to people, tried to get their son into rehab. And... they watched their son. They saw his skin graying, his eyes begin to sink in. He wasn’t eating and he was “turning in, in himself.”
On the morning of June 4, Michael tried asking for help, but his father was frustrated and had yelled at him.
“I had said to him, ‘I can’t put up with this anymore. Tell me where you want to go and I’ll pay for the ticket because I don’t know anything about addiction.’ I had a fight with my son before he died. Those were not good words. Those were the words I last said to him.”
Signs and symptoms of opiate abuse include:
• “Lost” or stolen medications;
• Respiratory depression;
• Small pupils;
• Slurred speech;
• Confusion/poor judgement;
• Unusual sleepiness, declining activity, sleep disturbances;
• Increased activity/alertness;
• Decreased appetite; and
• Slowed gait/movement.
Withdrawal is noted by severe flu-like symptoms.
“Educate yourself on the symptoms,” Ratajczak said. “Be aware. Ask questions. Check your kids' phones and other electronic devices. Have a conversation about it. There are places to turn to. We are all in this together.”
Along with the School Resource Officer in Attica and Letchworth schools, the Guidance Office also has resources.
“Check the phone. Not just text messaging, all social medias out there, all apps and the like. The answers are there,” Rudolph said.
Tony, who grew up in a city, moved to the rural area to get away from drugs. It wasn’t quite the barrier he needed for his daughter to remain unscathed from the heroin epidemic. He hadn’t banked on his daughter becoming an addict.
“My daughter has an addiction. Unfortunately, she had to take the route of the law enforcement way to get the help. That always isn't the best way. It’s frustrating as a parent, the road is not easy, we begged for help. But it wasn't until she got arrested before she got some help.”
Israel says he kind of blames himself in the death of his son because he didn’t know much about addiction. But he does now. While he said the knowledge it doesn’t help his son, he can tell his son’s story so other parents can recognize the symptoms.
“Not only did my son die. It affected our family. You not only lose a member, it destroys a family. It takes over and becomes an instigator. It gets everyone fighting and no one is understanding that it is a disease. It takes over your brain; it's not going to let you go.
“This is a disease that our society refuses to acknowledge exists. You are told to go home if you don't look stressed enough. It's a disease that you are trying to hide. It is not a choice. Nobody. Nobody makes a choice to be addicted. It happens.
“I used to tell my son ‘Come on Mike just stop it.’ I didn't understand how bad opioids take over your brain. Talk to your kids. Talk to your kids about addiction. But first learn.”
An overall sense of agreement was palpable in the auditorium: The conversation needs to continue. We have to start somewhere. This affects everyone.
“If you think it’s not happening in your house... Start taking a look at the behavior of your kid. Even if you’re wrong...You’ll be alright. But if you’re right...You can be saving your kid's life,” Israel said. “We can stop more people from falling into this hole called addiction.
For more information about Michael’s story go to Save the Michaels of the World.
For more information on addiction and recovery visit Recovery.org or Spectrum Human Services or Smart Recovery of Warsaw.
See related: Community forum on heroin and opiates to be held in Attica