BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Julie Israel stands on the stage, choking back tears, as she talks about her son, Michael.
She uses loving words to describe him; talks about how he could hug her when he could tell her day wasn’t going well and how he’d ask for a hug when his wasn’t. She talks about how he starred in his 8th grade play. And she talks about his death.
“I am a mother; I am a suicide survivor; I am the face of addiction,” said Israel in front of a crowded auditorium at North Park Theater.
Michael committed suicide in 2011 after not being able to receive help for his opioid addiction. Time after time, Michael was turned away from treatment.
“He was fighting a battle he feels he couldn’t win,” said Israel.
At the Opioid Epidemic Town Hall Forum, hosted by the Save the Michaels foundation which Israel is one of the founders of, several lawmakers and community leaders addressed the epidemic, having candid conversations about its grip on the community and ways to tackle it.
Western New York’s U.S. Attorney, William Hochul, took the stage first, beginning with hard hitting statistics, showing the impact the heroin and opioid epidemic has on the community.
He applauded Mayor Byron Brown’s efforts by making Buffalo one of the first cities where all police officers carry narcan, the opioid overdose reversal agent. Mayor Brown says narcan has been administered 900 times.
“There were six times more deaths related to overdoses than homicides last year,” said Hochul.
Let that sink in for a second — six times the number of deaths.
“We need to have some knowledge when it comes to this addiction,” said Avi Israel, Julie’s husband.
That’s the purpose of the town hall meeting — providing useful information for the community.
That’s one of the reasons Jessica Pitingolo came out.
“Every minute is a struggle,” said Pitingolo who is battling a heroin addiction. “Never in my life did I think ‘I’m going to grow up and be a heroin addict’ and then insidiously, it happened.”
Her story is like so many others – in 2010, Pitingolo was prescribed pain meds for a back injury.
“It started off with it was helping me — the medication,” starts Pitingolo who says she is receiving methadone but still uses from time to time to subside her withdrawal symptoms. “It just infiltrated my mind, my physical life — everything was about trying to feel better.”
She says a year and a half ago she started abusing heroin.
“I want to know what is going to be done for the community, what members of the community can do,” said Pitingolo on why she is at the forum.
She stands in the back, against a wall, listening as each speaker takes the stage which is lined with luminaries, each with a name on it, representing a person who died from an overdose during 2015.
Dr. Gale Burstein, the Erie County Health Commissioner stands behind the glowing bags, addressing the filled room in the theater. She has slides, showing different statistics. She has clear data showing the grasp of the epidemic. One slide shows a line graph presenting how many fatal overdoses there were in the county for each year from 2012 to 2015. In 2012, there were 103, 101 the next year, 128 in 2014 and around 250 in 2015.
Dr. Burstein says the average age for someone overdosing is 38-years-old; though they’ve seen people ages 17 to 83 die from an opioid overdose. She points out that 72% of those overdosing are men.
The epidemic isn’t solely city-based; Dr. Burstein’s data shows, of the nearly 250 fatal overdoses in the county, 45% of the people who died lived in Buffalo while 40% were from suburban areas; 8.5% in rural communities; and small percentages were homeless, those outside of Western New York and a few people from Niagara County.
Official say releasing this data will help show people the grip these drugs — heroin and opioid prescriptions — are having on everyone. Education and prevention are the two places advocates believe the community needs to start with to curb this crisis.
“There isn’t one single answer to this,” said Avi. “If we educate the public that starting with this kind of drug is a lifelong battle, maybe we can slow it down.”
A battle Pitingolo wishes she never had to fight but she is, every minute of every day.
“It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.”