Painkillers, heroin take lives of 84 in Kent Co. in 2015

Target 8 works with nonprofit to document lives lost in opioid crisis


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — They were strangers on earth, but dozens of people who died in 2015 will be forever connected by the way their lives ended.

At least 84 of the record 109 fatal drug overdoses in Kent County in 2015 were connected to opioids like morphine, methadone, fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone and heroin. They are the drugs at the center of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called an “epidemic” of overdoses.

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In 2015, opioids killed more than 33,000 people in the United States, more than any year on record, according to the CDC.

Michigan ranks 10th nationally per capita for opioid-based prescriptions, and 18th for the number of overdose deaths.

A LOOK AT VICTIMS OF THE OPIOID CRISIS

For six months, Target 8 has been examining records, piecing together the tapestry of lives lost to prescription painkillers and heroin in metro Grand Rapids in 2015.

Among them were a 20-year-old Grand Rapids Community College student who first tried painkillers with friends as a teen, a 24-year-old man who got hooked on pain medications after a snowboarding injury, a 25-year-old man who started experimenting with pills and pot with friends in his teen years, and a 30-year-old mom who — according to an aunt — began experimenting early in life in an effort to escape a tough childhood.

All four of them died from heroin overdoses.

The youngest victim that year was a 10-month-old Sparta boy, who died after accidentally swallowing one of his grandmother’s morphine pills.

The oldest was a 70-year-old nursing home patient and long-time chronic pain sufferer, who died from a mixture of fentanyl and oxycodone — both powerful painkillers.

It was a fentanyl overdose that caused a 29-year-old husband and father to stop breathing.

A 33-year-old man also died from a fentanyl overdose. He was trying to manage pain from a recent surgery and had warned his surgeon that he had a history of addiction.

A 46-year-old woman died from a methadone overdose. She had started on the painkiller years before to treat migraines.

A 48-year-old woman also died from methadone. She had chronic pain from fibromyalgia.

While many patients use opioids responsibly to manage pain, some become addicted to the powerful medications. Others end up switching to heroin because it’s cheaper than prescription medications.

In July 2016, Target 8 used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain records of fatal overdoses in 2015 from the Kent County Medical Examiner’s Office. The medical examiner removed all names and addresses from the reports.

Target 8 used police reports, death notices, obituaries and social media to identify the deceased individuals, then reached out to dozens of families, many of whom wanted to share their stories.

For those families that did not want their loved ones named in this report, Target 8 respected their wishes entirely and did not identify the deceased individuals.

For families who wanted to share their story publicly, Target 8 created an online memorial. Parents, children and siblings of those lost sent pictures and remembrances to Target 8 — hoping their stories might help save someone else.

>>Inside woodtv.com: Faces, stories of people lost to opioids in 2015

If you’re a parent or spouse of someone who died from an opioid overdose and would like Target 8 to include them in our online tribute, please send a picture and paragraph about them to reportit@woodtv.com.

DATA ON VICTIMS OF OPIOID CRISIS

The Grand Rapids Red Project, a nonprofit leader in the fight against opioid addiction and overdoses, is also working to conduct “social autopsies” on those killed in this crisis.

To aid in that effort, Target 8 turned its research over to Red Project leaders Steve Alsum and Brandon Hool.

“This could be really helpful in terms of targeting programming to end this epidemic,” said Steve Alsum, executive director of the Grand Rapids Red Project. “For instance, we are seeing in here that some of the people who died in 2015 had a recent history of incarceration. That might suggest we work more with the Kent County jail to incorporate overdose prevention services into what they do.”

The Red Project worked with Target 8 to analyze the data our investigators gathered. Of the 84 overdose deaths we studied:

  • More than half died with more than one drug in their system;
  • The drugs most often cited were heroin, methadone, alcohol and fentanyl, respectively;
  • Roughly two-thirds of the overdoses happened in suburban Kent County, about one-third happened within the Grand Rapids city limits;
  • Sixty percent were male;
  • Average age was 41;
  • 83 percent were white, nine percent were black and four percent were Latino;
  • 44 percent listed their occupations as retail, sales and/or customer service;
  • 25 percent worked in construction and/or manufacturing;
  • 7 percent worked in health care;
  • 5 percent were students;
  • 13 percent were unemployed;
  • 17 percent had college degrees and 28 percent had some college education;
  • 38 percent had high school or GED diplomas;
  • 17 percent did not graduate high school.

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Resources:

Download: Opioid overdoses 101 (PowerPoint)

PDF: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on naloxone

PDF: SAMHSA safety advice for patients and family members of opioid users