StoryCorps 517: Fighting It Every Day
Michael Garofalo (MG): The US is in the midst of an epidemic. I’m talking about opioid abuse. It’s been called the deadliest drug crisis in American history. And there’s been a lot of great reporting about how and why things got to where they are. Here at StoryCorps, we’ve been thinking about what we could contribute to the conversation about this crisis. And well, what we do best is listen, so that’s what we’re gonna do in this episode. We’ll hear from people who have lost loved ones.
Marlene Shay (MS): He’d been sober for a year and seemingly had it all together, but as a mother, you always dread that call.
MG: And people who are out there fighting against this every single day.
Carla Saunders (CS): The same families that I have helped deliver their babies are the same people I have to call and tell them their children are dead from overdoses.
MG: It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m Michael Garofalo, stay with us.
MG: Welcome back. Joining me now is StoryCorps Senior Producer, Jasmyn Belcher Morris. Hi, Jasmyn.
Jasmyn Belcher Morris (JBM): Hey, Michael.
MG: So, you lead a team of producers here and you guys have been looking into stories from the opioid epidemic.
JBM: Yeah, I mean we couldn’t ignore the fact that death rates now rival those of the AIDS crisis during the 1990s. I mean it’s been said that this is the deadliest drug crisis America has ever seen. I mean since the turn of the century, more than half a million people died from drug overdoses. And the number of overdose deaths involving opioids has quadrupled.
MG: When you say opioids, let’s just clarify, what do you mean?
JBM: So, prescription opioids, pain killers that are used to treat acute pain and also heroin.
MG: The stories that you’re gonna share with us now, they-they really focus on the human toll that this crisis is taking. Where did you find them?
JBM: Well, we looked at some of the hardest hit areas in the country right now. So, Appalachia, [inaudible] and New England. And what you’ll hear as we listen to these stories is that this crisis, it really touches everyone.
Our first story starts several years ago when it was really becoming clear that things were getting bad. Kyle Cook and Carla Saunders are neonatal nurses at a children’s hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee where together, they’ve spent decades caring for infants. And at StoryCorps, they remembered when their jobs began to change.
Kyle Cook (KC): Summer 2010, we had six babies in the nursery who were in withdrawal. It was so hard to watch these babies, they would have tremors, they’re inconsolable, and we couldn’t fix it. We couldn’t make these babies better. And little did we know that was the tip of the iceberg. We had 10, and then 15, and then at one point, 37 babies in the NICU that were withdrawing. They’re bursting at the seams. We were completely unprepared, and short- staffed, and I remember a nurse in tears, holding a baby and this baby’s just screaming. And she said, ”We have got to do something,” because what we’re doing wasn’t working. And here, we were just a small children’s hospital-
KC: In East Tennessee. And these babies were carrying the flag of the substance abuse problem in the United States. And so, we went looking to the experts you know, let’s call across the country and let’s find out what’s the best way to treat these babies. And then that moment of-
CS: Nobody knows.
KC: Nobody knows (laughs). And who knew that we would become the experts. When you see a baby especially one that has been in your care for a long time that has been off the charts in withdrawal and you’ve done everything you possibly can, you finally get this baby acting like a normal baby, and then, he smiles at you.
KC: And to know that you’ve made a difference in a mother’s life, I mean that will carry you through the darkest times knowing that my gosh, we did this.
CS: I know.
KC: We did this.
JBM: That’s Kyle Cook and Carla Saunders, Nurse Practitioners at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.
MG: You know, when I think about the opioid epidemic, children really aren’t the first people who come to mind.
JBM: Well, it’s been said that children are the invisible victims of this crisis, and we’ll hear more about that in this next story. Jesus Valle and his wife, Suzanne live in Blue Creek, Ohio, a small town just outside of Appalachia. And we found news reports from these areas that talk about how overwhelmed the-the foster care system is because there are so many parents dealing with addiction, and this has required family members, grandparents, aunts and uncles to step in, and Suzanne and Jesus are an example of that. They adopted four kids from their own family, two nieces, two nephews, and they’ve also become foster parents, taking in other kids from the community.
Suzanne Valle (SV): I always like to tell everybody we raised yours, mine, ours, my brothers, now others. I’m 62 years old and I think about the seasons of life from zero to twenty. It’s like you’re in the spring of life, you’re born, everything is new. From 20 to 40, it’s summer, you’re in the prime of life. 40 to 60, it’s the fall of the year and beyond, it’s winter. And I think about us being in that … it’s unbelievable.
Jesus Valle (JV): Yes.
SV: You always were right there by my side for those decisions to take on more children, to raise them. And you’ve really done that unselfishly, Jesus. We get busy with life and I don’t say it enough, and I just wanna say that to you.
JV: Thank you, but I don’t mind ’cause I know we save and fight little lives.
JBM: You know, Jesus and Suzanne run a construction company. And in their interview, they talked about how they’d always imagined they’d be retired by now, but at this point, that’s just not an option for them because they have children to support.
MG: So, we’ve heard about infants, we’ve heard about other family members who step in to take care of kids. What about parents whose kids become addicted? Did you hear from any families in that situation?
JBM: Yes, of course. I mean many parents have lost their teenage and adult children to this crisis including Marlene Shay. Her son, Adam, overdosed on heroin in 2014 when he was 21 years old. And you know, we realized something through Adam’s story. There’s this really surprising thing happening. Organ donations have gone up in recent years.
JBM: Yeah, that’s because so many people are dying that now, nearly one out of every ten organ donors has died of an overdose, and Adam was one of them. So, his kidney and pancreas went to a woman named Karen Goodwin. She is recovering from addiction herself. And Karen sat down for this conversation with Adam’s mom, Marlene near Cleveland.
Karen Goodwin (KG): Can you tell me about the day Adam died?
Marlene Shay (MS): He had been in and out of rehab over the last three years, but he had been sober for a year and seemingly had it all together. But, as a mother, you always dread that call. And that day, we got a call from his fiance that he overdosed and he was slipping away.
KG: Well, you know, if it wasn’t for Adam, I wouldn’t be here.
MS: I know…
KG: When I got the call to come in, they said, ‘The reason you have this donor is because he overdosed on heroin.’ And right after I had my transplant — I was still in the hospital even — my sister brought me a copy of Adam’s obit. And she said, ‘I think this is your donor. Your donor’s 21 and this kid’s 21 and look at all these similarities.’
But I wanted to wait to talk to you because I knew the most chance of rejection would be in the first year; and, if Adam’s organs failed, I felt like it would almost be like you losing him and then losing another part of him.
But also, because I knew he was a recovering addict, I had the opportunity to give Adam that year of clean time and give that back as a gift to you.
MS: Then your beautiful letter came and you told us about, you know, your addiction. And it was just this gentle reassurance that came over me that this was going to be okay. And I will say again, thank you.
KG: For all purposes, I should’ve died a long time ago. And so I’ve always felt the responsibility to stay clean and sober to myself and my family but now it’s like I have another family to stay clean for.
JBM: That was Karen Goodwin with Marlene Shay for StoryCorps in Beachwood, Ohio. And Karen has been sober for 17 years.
MG: So, you’ve got one last story for us, right?
JBM: Yeah. Eh, you know, we’ve been talking about how this affects families, but when the opioid epidemic hits a town, it seems like everybody is touched by this. For example, we talked to a medical examiner in rural West Virginia where drug overdose rates are more than doubled the national average. Her name is Carla McBee.
Carla McBee (CM): Since we live in a small community, the same families that I have helped deliver their babies are the same people I have to call and tell them their children are dead from overdoses.
JBM: Carla has also worked as an EMT and Paramedic responding to drug overdoses, and one call brought her to the bedside of a young man named Seth Mcneese. He survived and sat down with Carla for this conversation.
Seth McNees (SM): What do you remember about the first time you saw me?
CM: I remember coming into the house where you were and you were laying on the bed not breathing at all, and you had vomited all over the sheets and all over yourself, and it was just minutes probably before you would’ve passed.
SM: Did you think I wasn’t gonna make it?
CM: I did not. I remember coming home thinking I am so glad that day is over. You know, I hope I did everything right. When people say, ”What are your top five most disturbing calls in EMS?” And-and I don’t know why, yours was because I’ve been to lots of overdoses, I think because you were closer to death than most and it was up to me to bring you back or to keep you alive until somebody else could. That’s a big burden.
SM: Is there anything you’ve always wanted to ask me, but never had the chance?
CM: If you don’t wanna answer it, it’s okay, but did you know you were overdosing?
SM: I mean it wasn’t like I was suicidal or anything like that–
SM: … I just took too much. Went to sleep and didn’t wake up the next day. How did you feel when I showed up at your doorstep?
CM: I was surprised because at first, I didn’t even know who you were. You look very different than-
CM: … How I had seen you-
CM: You know, unresponsive. And then of course, when you told me your name, I couldn’t believe you were standing there. Do you remember what you said to me?
SM: Thank you very much you know, and I’m-I’m very happy that you saved my life.
SM: I’m sure you probably haven’t had very many people say that to you.
CM: I haven’t, no. I see a lot of drug abuse and a lot of people sick, but I never had one come to my door (laughs). I was really glad to see that I had made a difference in your life.
SM: You sure did.
CM: Do you still fight it?
SM: I fight it every day. I think I’ll fight it to the day that I die. I-I’ve fell off the train many eh, many times.
CM: If you ever want me to remind you how bad it looked (laughs)-
CM: … I’ll remind you (laughs).
SM: It inspires me to be able to know a person like you that deals with that kind of stuff. It makes me not want to get back to that lifestyle you know, it-it helps me a lot.
JBM: That’s Seth McNees speaking with Carla Mcbee for StoryCorps in New Martinsville, West Virginia
MG: Do you know how Seth is doing now?
JBM: So, after their interview was recorded, Seth actually got into a really terrible motorcycle accident. He broke tons of bones and almost died. Now, he’s dealing with chronic pain and has to drive hours to another state to find physical therapy that he really can’t afford. But it looks like things might be turning a corner for Seth. He tells me he recently found work again as a technician for power plants on the East Coast.
MG: So Jasmyn, after listening to all these stories and others in the archive that you guys listened to, what do you feel like you’ve come to understand about this crisis?
JBM: Well, if you start talking to people and you find that really, everyone’s affected by this. People of all classes, all backgrounds, all races living in all parts of the country, cities and rural America, I mean everybody knows somebody who’s fighting this. And to that end, I just wanna mention the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a free hotline. It’s confidential, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They can help make referrals to local treatment facilities or support groups. The number is 1-800-662-HELP. That’s 1-800-662-4357.
MG: Jasmyn, thanks so much for sharing these incredibly difficult, but important stories.
JBM: Thanks, Michael. It’s a team effort.
MG: That’s all for this episode and these stories were produced by Jasmyn Belcher Morris, Grace Pauley, Liyna Anwar, and Jud Esty-Kendall. Find out what music we used in this episode and in every episode on our website, StoryCorps.org. And if you wanna leave a voicemail for someone you hear on this show, you can use our listener voicemail line. The number is 301-744-TALK. That’s 301-744-T-A-L-K. For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Michael Garofalo. Until next time, thanks for listening.