Article By Casey Harrison
Okemos native Phil Pavona will never forget his final conversation with his son, Eric.
It was August 27, 2011. Phil and his wife, Pat, were celebrating their wedding anniversary at their cabin in Canada. Eric, 25 at the time, once a bright young boy who graduated from Okemos High School with a 32 on his ACT and had a scholarship to Ferris State University and later a student at MSU, had since been plagued with a gripping illness.
Eric was struggling to overcome a heroin addiction for nearly three years.
“After time, and again I didn’t understand addiction, it went from being scared and naive to looking him in the eye and saying ‘I don’t get it Eric, man just f*****g stop. I don’t get it man. Why can’t you just stop? You know what it’s doing to you, your life, everyone around you, us, just stop.”
“I’m sorry you’re disappointed Eric, but this is what it has to be,” Phil said he recalled telling Eric. “Don’t worry about this ... we’ll work something out. If you need to see her we’ll plan it out, we’ll do what we need to do. But don’t worry about it. Have a good night, your mom and I love you.”
Around 9:00 the next morning, Phil received another call from his daughter. She had found her only brother in the basement, but he wouldn't get up or move or even breathe.
Eric was dead.
It took Phil time and time again to understand addiction, but when finally he did, it was too late.
“After time, and again I didn’t understand addiction, it went from being scared and naive to looking him in the eye and saying ‘I don’t get it Eric, man just f*****g stop,” Phil said. “I don’t get it man. Why can’t you just stop? You know what it’s doing to you, your life, everyone around you, us, just stop.”
Phil remembers the last few days with his son were on edge. Phil said a few days before his son’s death, Eric and his girlfriend planned to go out for dinner. Eric had a meeting with a counselor at 8 p.m. and had to be home by 11 p.m., leaving no chance for them to get up to no good.
Little did Phil know, they shot up and Eric overdosed that night. He was rushed to the hospital where he was administered Narcan, a life-saving antidote that instantly reverses the effects of heroin and opioid overdoses. Eric was home by his curfew. Phil only found out because he was sent a patient satisfactory pamphlet in the mail a few days after Eric’s death.
“I’m sure he felt like this was something he could walk away from, because most kids do,” Phil said. “You can do a lot of stupid things and walk away from it, as long as you’re not getting into a car and killing anyone. But there are a few drugs out there that are very, very difficult to walk away from.”
Eric was one of the 29 opioid-related deaths in Ingham County in 2011. Heroin and opioid-related deaths in the county have continued to increase every year since, as the problem has been labeled an epidemic throughout the country.
Since Eric’s death, the epidemic has worsened but awareness has never been higher. President Donald Trump has declared the crisis a national emergency. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has teamed up with 40 other states to investigate opioid manufacturers and distributors — as painkiller addiction is often a gateway before addicts graduate to heroin, fentanyl or carfentanil — an elephant tranquilizer.
In the six years since his son’s death, Phil is now the vice president of the Families Against Narcotics (FAN) Ingham County chapter. He’s teamed up with public officials to tackle how addiction is perceived and treated from all angles.
Once the director of pulmonary services at Sparrow Hospital, Phil was a driving force to create the local FAN chapter. In addition to the speaking he does to schools and large groups, he now works to fix a broken system and acts as a liaison between hospitals, jails, recovery facilities, addicts and their families.
It gives Eric’s death a symbolic meaning, but it’s not why Phil does what he does today. He does it so no family has to go through the same struggles he did — to eventually lose a loved one to this epidemic.
‘I got myself into this mess, I’ll get myself out.’
Phil thinks Eric’s addiction started when he decided to move back home. After his second year at Ferris State, Eric decided to move back home and transfer to MSU to pursue a degree in accounting.
Phil described his son as a “quiet, kind of nerdy kid,” when he was growing up. Eric never got into much trouble and at one point had three part-time jobs and multiple cars.
The real problem, Phil thinks, was when Eric met a woman — a different one than who’d he spend his last days years later with — at a party in East Lansing.
“I think heroin, among college kids — especially MSU kids — is more associated as a street drug. But the opioids have the same effect. They associate the heroin more as the dirty drug, the street drug. I think the college kids kind of think the opioids are more of a clean drug. ‘It’s a pill, I can just take it with mouth.’”
She introduced Eric to the drug scene. He quickly fell for her after meeting her a few times. She pressured Eric into trying heroin. Eventually, he started buying drugs for his new fling.
“You don’t want to be a heroin addict hanging out around other people who aren’t heroin addicts, because misery loves company," Phil said. "Your fear is that they’re never going to understand you and be like you, so she began to put a lot of pressure on him to use drugs she was using.”
Phil isn’t the only one who believes drugs like heroin and opioids are popular among college students.
Linda Vail, the Ingham County health officer, said data that tracks Narcan, which has recently been supplied to local law enforcement officers on patrol, suggests that younger demographics are using just as much — if not more than older individuals.
“Are college students involved? Absolutely,” she said. “I know of deaths. Here’s probably why: if you look at my demographic data on my deaths, by age range our deaths are occurring far above a college-aged student. But if you look at that number around Narcan that number goes down.
“We see death at an older age because they have other issues, they’ve been using, all those things. And so the older folks who are starting to get weaker, their systems are weaker because a lifetime or a history of it. Young folks are healthier from the get-go. And they have a higher chance of surviving things like this. If you look at deaths, it’s not a true representation of the population that’s really getting represented by all of this opioid thing.”
Though the data suggests teens and young adults aren’t immune to the epidemic, East Lansing may be less-impacted than other cities in the area.
East Lansing Police Lt. Scot Sexton helps oversee first responder data to suspected overdoses. He said ELPD will respond to a suspected overdose between one and two times a month.
“I think heroin, among college kids — especially MSU kids — is more associated as a street drug. But the opioids have the same effect,” Sexton said. “They associate the heroin more as the dirty drug, the street drug. I think the college kids kind of think the opioids are more of a clean drug. ‘It’s a pill, I can just take it with mouth.’”
Since the end of this summer, ELPD has equipped all of their patrol officers with Narcan kits. One officer responded to a call and administered Narcan within an hour of receiving her kit. On Aug. 18, ELPD also responded to a call on Beech Street for a suspected overdose.
Officers said the victim, an MSU student, was dead by the time they could make contact.
The first of three times Eric was arrested for heroin, he told his dad it was for having liquor in his car. Phil believed his son and had every reason to — he was still unaware of Eric’s addiction. Phil went to Eric’s court hearing in East Lansing.
Like the responsible adult Phil thought his son was, Eric owned up to the charge. “I got myself into this mess, I’ll get myself out,” Phil recalls what his son told him before Eric’s court appearance.
When the court listing showed his trial was for possession of a controlled substance, Phil knew something wasn’t right.
“I saw ‘controlled substance’ and I go, ‘What the hell is this? Booze isn’t a controlled substance.’ So the first thing on my mind was cocaine,” Phil said. “That’s kind of a designer thing, cool kids do cocaine, suburban people do cocaine. Never in my wildest dreams would have guessed it was heroin.”
When Phil and his family tried to work Eric through treatment, he thought the system — from law enforcement to prosecution to recovery — was flawed. He decided to change the stigma of law enforcement’s approach to substance addiction, and it’s starts with a strong relationship with Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth.
Phil thinks Wriggelsworth’s philosophy to dealing with the epidemic is much more encompassing than how the system used to be because of increased communication between the courts, attorneys and law enforcement. The Michigan State Police has also created an initiative, called the Angel Program, that acts similarly to medical amnesty for alcohol-related incidents with minors.
“Scott Wriggelsworth’s philosophy is we can’t arrest our way out of this,” Phil said. "Jail might save their life, but treatment is the answer.”
Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon agrees.
“One thing that’s just begun is law enforcement assisted diversion,” Siemon said. “That can look like a number of different things. (The Angel Program) started here with Michigan State Police … that says is if someone comes in, turns themselves in, turns their drugs in, they won’t be prosecuted for it. They’ll be referred to treatment. So that’s a start.”
A glimpse of hope
After Eric’s appearance in court, signs of his addiction quickly began to emerge and take their toll on the Pavona family.
Phill said his savings were gone. Jewelry was missing — his son took almost anything to feed his addiction. Eric opened credit cards and took out thousands of dollars in loans. He even canceled his college enrollment and received the tuition his parents paid for to buy drugs.
“It’s a fallacy that this whole idea that you can scare your kid into getting clean and, or you let him hit rock bottom to get him clean, it really has to do with them getting sick of getting sick and getting sick of the lifestyle.”
When Phil helps families who’re dealing with an addict, one of the first things he tells them is to freeze all their finances.
“We tell them before they can help their son or daughter they need to do three things first: you need to protect yourself financially, emotionally and physically,” Phil said.
Eric would have his good days and his bad. After multiple run-ins with the law, Eric was placed on probation. He tried forging signatures and cheating urine tests, and eventually ended back in jail.
Phil didn’t want Eric in jail, but at some point, knew it was his best option.
“I didn’t want my kid in jail and we didn’t know what was going on,” Phil said. “And we figured, ‘Oh this will do it,’ because as a parent you’re thinking that you’ve been taught — but it’s a fallacy that this whole idea that you can scare your kid into getting clean and, or you let him hit rock bottom to get him clean, it really has to do with them getting sick of getting sick and getting sick of the lifestyle.”
Serious financial woes are the bleak reality many heroin and opioid addicts face. Cara Ludlow, a licensed clinical social worker and certified advanced alcohol and drugs counselor at Olin Health Center and others, thinks the epidemic stemmed from years of overprescribing painkillers.
Ludlow said once hooked on drugs like Vicodin or Oxycontin, the chemical makeup of opiates creates a heavy imbalance of dopamine, which results in dependency to maintain levels of dopamine.
If a person becomes dependent on opiates, Ludlow said, it literally rewires your brain, and it becomes impossible to function without a fix of the drugs because of how dopamine affects the brain.
According to data from Olin, she said only 0.4 percent of MSU students have reported using opiates in the last month, compared to 1.1 percent of MSU students who’ve used an opiate in the last year and 98.9 percent of students have never used an opioid.
“Treating someone seeking recovery from an Opiate addiction can be very different than treating someone seeking recovery from another drug of choice,” Ludlow said in a statement. “Addiction is the big picture is all the same, but each substance is unique.”
After a person becomes dependent on painkillers and their script runs out, Vail, the Ingham County health officer, said they will often times turn to buying those same drugs off the street, despite a high markup rate. Once a person is buying drugs off the street, they quickly find a much cheaper, much more potent alternative: heroin.
“Expecting to be pain-free in situations you just can’t expect to be pain-free. Can you really expect to take opioids to expect to be pain-free in situations where pain-free just isn’t an option.”
“Buying Oxycontin on the street gets real expensive real fast,” Vail said. “So buying Oxycontin on the street gets really expensive compared to buying heroin on the street. Again that transition to heroin for a lot of different reasons, but a lot of what it has to do is with access to the prescription drugs after they are addicted.”
The problem worsens when someone buys heroin that’s been laced with more potent and even cheaper drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil, which can be hundreds of times stronger than heroin. A person shoots up with what they think is a regular dose for them, but is actually a lethal dose of another drug.
“When they come to our office and they’re actually arrested, we have to look at how we’re going to charge them,” Siemon said. “We have a lot of specialty courts and so we refer people to various sobriety or drug courts. We also look at the underlying charge. It might not be drugs, it might be retail fraud. They’re stealing stuff to support their habit. So how do we make referrals to the court. What kind of sentencing recommendations do we make to get them into treatment instead of locking them up?"
“Then, kind of on the other end, we look at the people who are chronically carrying guns, dealing people, destroying the neighborhoods, trashing houses, whatever. Those people, we want to support the police, support the community and get them off the streets through the criminal justice system.”
The crisis may be getting fully understood by officials who wish to curb it, Vail thinks. The number of heroin and opioid-related deaths has increased every year since 2003, but data Vail has suggested the trend could finally have a lower rate of fatalities, compared to 2016.
Vail said she thinks both doctors and patients are also understanding the dangers of prescription painkillers, and the doors they can open to addiction.
“Expecting to be pain-free in situations you just can’t expect to be pain-free,” Vail said. “Can you really expect to take opioids to expect to be pain-free in situations where pain-free just isn’t an option.”
Phil said since his time at FAN, he’s seen a dramatic change in rehab and detox facilities. The use of Medicated-Assisted Therapy to use milder opioids like Methadone to gradually decrease the tolerance to opioids and lessen the symptoms of withdrawal is becoming a standard practice.
Medical professionals are becoming more transparent and hands-on with after-care facilities and following up with patients, according to Phil.
Though the crisis is still a long time from being solved completely, Phil said things are much better than they were when Eric lost his battle to addiction. Maybe one day, there will be an end to the crisis.
“I tell addicts if they’re really serious about their recovery, sign release forms and don’t lie to the people who are trying to help you,” Phil said. “Neighbors don’t need to know what’s going on, but if you have people in your life that love you, they have to know what’s going on.”
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