GRANDVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — A Grandville mom has a message to share amid the constant barrage of reports examining the overdose epidemic.
“It didn’t just happen yesterday. This has been going on for years,” Mary DeBoer told Target 8.
DeBoer’s son, Matt McKinney, was found dead of a heroin overdose on Dec. 15, 2004. The 17-year-old who wrote poetry and loved animals, video games and rap, was found dead in a friend’s car with his sleeve still rolled up.
The tragedy was a harbinger of the devastation to come.
McKinney’s death might have been warning shots across the bow: Heroin had hit the suburbs.
In 2004, the state of Michigan recorded 455 drug overdose deaths related to heroin or opioids. In 2015, that number had more than quadrupled to 1,981.
McKinney’s friends had tried to push the alarm button in the days after his death.
“I started hearing about it a lot last year, and it was Oxycontin,” a teenage girl told 24 Hour News 8 in a story that aired Dec. 16, 2004. “After the effect wouldn’t work on the Oxycontin, they started doing heroin.”
“Heroin is here,” a young man told Target 8 at the time. “They need to stop denying it.”
“I know a good amount of kids, thirty to forty, who shoot up heroin,” reported another young man.
The federal agents who investigated McKinney’s death confirmed that they identified “several dozen” young people, ages 17 to 25, who were hooked on heroin in the Grandville and western Grand Rapids area. But it seems the warnings went unrecognized and most of West Michigan went back to life as usual.
DeBoer and her husband, Larry, felt isolated and alone.
“It was twelve years ago when Matt died, and it was still such a stigma,” DeBoer recalled. “Nobody wanted to talk about it. They were apt to say, ‘Well, he’s a naughty boy,’ or ‘He just got in trouble.’”
DeBoer told Target 8 she felt alone and without support even before Matt died. He had struggled with addiction in his teens and the family tried everything to help him.
“We finally ended up sending him out of state,” she said. “He went to Minnesota Teen Challenge. He was there for six months and he did some great work there. But then he came home and there was no follow-up. There was nobody here to help him. No groups. No education. Nobody that would continue that support for him and to help him through this.”
A dozen years later, some progress has been made, though there’s still much to be done.
Among the new resources is a new chapter of Families Against Narcotics in Grand Rapids, which meets on the first Tuesday of every month from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. July’s meeting will happen July 11, due to the holiday.
There are multiple task forces investigating how to attack the overdose epidemic and a myriad of campaigns to raise awareness and educate parents, educators, legislators and the medical community.
Legislators are making the overdose-reversal drug Naloxone more readily available to the public, in addition to all emergency crews.
Among other resources, The Grand Rapids Red Project provides training for police – and the public – on how to administer Naloxone.
Michigan legislators also passed a good Samaritan law to protect people from criminal charges who call 911 when an overdose happens.
Matt McKinney’s friend didn’t call 911 back in 2004 because he was afraid of getting in trouble with police.
DeBoer is on the front lines of the fight now. She changed her career focus after working in a trauma surgeon’s office for years and is now a nurse in a detox center. She told Target 8 she often sees her son’s face in the young people who still think they’re invincible.
“I tell them Matt’s story, and talk to them,” she said. “And they stop and think and they look at me with tears in their eyes, and I know I’ve planted that seed, and that’s what this is all about.”