The Springfield Police Department responded to 94 overdose calls between January and June 2017. Out of those 94, seven died.
In that same period, the Special Investigations Section of the SPD seized 1,460.56 grams of heroin, according to Lisa Cox. Just 26.3 grams were seized throughout 2011.
“We had to deal with meth for so long, and now we have to deal with something potentially more dangerous to citizens,” Eric Reece, a lieutenant with the SPD, said. “It is just tough to know that it has gotten worse. Not that we’re not making a difference, but we’re fighting meth and then the next day we’re dealing with people that are overdosing in their homes from heroin.”
These local statistics are a reflection of the national opioid epidemic. Heroin and other opioids — fentanyl, oxycodone, vicodin and morphine — are chemicals that “bind to receptors in your brain or body,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The effects are pain relief and a sense of well-being, which make opioids extremely addictive. According to the National Institute for Drug Abuse, over 90 Americans die from opioid overdoses every day.
Tom Emery has worked with Cox Health since 2006 as an emergency room nurse. He now assumes the role of an injury prevention outreach educator. Emery recalled caring for many repeat visitors in the emergency room.
“We would see quite a few people with drug-seeking behavior coming in with vague symptoms, stories that didn’t pan out and … basically, they wanted narcotics,” Emery said. “Unfortunately, sometimes drug addicts can also have health issues. So, you can’t just have a blanket policy of ‘No, we don’t dispense when we suspect drug abuse.’ Drug addicts have bodies just like we do, and they do have pain issues.”
Overdose deaths in the U.S. have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many addiction stories begin with the use of legal drugs prescribed by doctors. But these drugs share the same addictive qualities as the illegal opioid heroin, so it doesn’t take long for patients to become dependent on them.
“Most addicts get to be heroin abusers through prescription pill abuse,” Reece said. “A lot of people we deal with have had a legitimate injury where they were prescribed painkillers and they get addicted to it and they eventually move to heroin because that’s cheaper to get.”
In 2014, almost 2 million Americans were addicted to prescription opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Sometimes people aren’t ready for you to be honest,” Emery said. “Just because I’m willing to tell them (about their addiction) doesn’t mean they’re willing to accept that. You have to meet them where they are.”
A young life lost to the growing epidemic
Amy Blasingim picks up the phone.
“Shea’s overdosed and it doesn’t look good.”
The first part of the sentence is familiar; the second is something Amy’s only envisioned hundreds of times but never heard before.
This is Shea Blasingim’s story. Amy, Shea’s mother, feels compelled to tell it.
Amy spent much of the past year and a half reflecting. In hindsight, she can pinpoint the start of Shea’s drug use to his early teenage years.
Amy saw Shea’s childhood friends begin pouring their time into academics or extracurricular activities. At each fork in the road, his classmates chose to take one path or the other. But Shea chose nothing; he never found his niche.
“I don’t think he ever found where he fit in,” Amy said. “This world of other kids who struggled with not finding their place turned to (drugs). I think it numbed his insecurities and frustrations.”
Shea’s parents became concerned when he was caught with a large quantity of marijuana on school grounds. Amy said he was stereotyped by teachers and peers after that incident, which further fueled his addiction.
It started, with marijuana — what Amy calls his “gateway drug.” But Shea craved a stronger high, and he found what he was looking for in prescription pills. Although he never had an injury which required a legitimate prescription, Shea often bought pills from friends or stole them from home medicine cabinets.
“It kind of opened up a path for him,” Amy said. “Unfortunately with his chemical makeup, it wasn’t going to work for him to just casually use things like (marijuana).”
Amy noticed behavioral changes and strange recurring situations as Shea dove deeper into addiction.
“There were so many little tricks I learned,” Amy said. “New faces I had never seen before. A guy would come over and say he was dropping off his history book for Shea. I thought that was so weird. I found out later there were drugs in the book.”
Amy and her husband made the decision to pull their son out of Glendale High School, hoping a change of scenery and a new peer group would give him a real shot at sobriety. He transferred to Kickapoo High School and entered a treatment program at Burrell Behavioral Health. Amy and her family also committed their weekends to group counseling sessions, but Shea struggled.
“I hoped he would get a fresh start and go in with a clean slate,” Amy said. “But it was the same scenario. Just different faces.”
After multiple failed attempts to get him sober, Shea’s family was desperate. Amy said they practically depleted their financial resources attempting to save their son.
Following high school graduation, Shea attended a faith-based rehabilitation center in Arkansas: Teen Challenge.
For 17 months, Shea stayed at the camp, and Amy said he did well. But following his release, he ignored his parent’s advice to stay in Arkansas. Instead, he moved home and fell back into the same crowd he left behind almost two years earlier.
“It was within two months that I knew exactly what was going on,” Amy said. “The pattern was back.”
In the years after Teen Challenge, Shea was using heroin — a detail Amy couldn’t bear to admit yet.
“He had several overdoses where friends got him to the hospital, left him, dropped him off, ran — but knew he needed medical attention fast,” Amy said. “I still didn’t want to acknowledge or believe it was heroin. I still wanted to believe it was pills.”
A combination of poor living conditions and the heavy drug use deteriorated Shea’s physical health. He suffered from skin infections, and his thin face accentuated his sunken cheekbones.
“I look back on some pictures; he looked so cute,” Amy said. “He was so handsome, just beautiful. But his face — it was just skin on bones.”
Shea continued to ride the roller coaster of addiction, as his family tried their best to keep up.
“He’d do well for a little while, so my mom and I would get him set up in an apartment,” Amy said. “He’d get a job and be happy with his job. We would think ‘OK, we’re turning a corner here; But then he’d fall off the wagon and use and not show up for work.
“A lot of the best conversations we had in the last few years were when he was incarcerated,” Amy said. “He was so smart and had a good plan together ... and funny. That would make me think ‘See, you can be clean if you want — you’re doing it!’”
Amy calls back on her way to the scene of the overdose, hoping for better news. Instead, a police officer answers and tells her that Shea is dead.
It was a lethal injection of fentanyl, an opiate 50 times more potent than heroin, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
A day after the overdose, Amy drove to where Shea had been staying to collect his belongings. When she walked in, she was shocked and saddened to see how poorly kept up the apartment was and to find the addicts living in it strung out on drugs.
“It was just heartbreaking for me because I could picture that being Shea a few days before,” Amy said. “The boy that walked out with me was just crying. I think he was sad for Shea but also sad for his own life. I remember him looking up at the sky and just … tears.
“Addiction doesn’t discriminate,” Amy said. “It can happen to anybody.”
From a life of addiction, heartache … to a life promoting recovery, unity
David Stoecker has survived three drug overdoses, a car crash, alcohol poisoning and a suicide attempt. But hitting rock bottom isn’t what marked the start of a new life for him almost nine years ago.
After a night out at the bar, Stoecker drunkenly drove home when he noticed a cop car pull out behind him. In that moment, the long-time addict and agnostic began negotiating with God.
“God, if you’re real, you’ll let me not get pulled over — I swear I’ll start going to church,” Stoecker said, repeating the words he could remember thinking that night. “You let me not get pulled over, I’ll start going to church every Sunday and I’ll never drink again.
“I always say that by the time I turned onto my street, I was going to give up drinking, smoking cigarettes, cussing, premarital sex … And when I turned onto my street, (the police officer) kept going straight.”
Stoecker made it to his garage, avoiding a DWI charge. He said he turned off the car engine and passed out at the wheel. He slept there all night, as he had done many times throughout his 20 years of addiction.
But when he woke up the next morning, he noticed a difference — he actually remembered the events of the night before and all the promises he made to God.
That morning fell on Super Bowl Sunday. Stoecker planned on attending a watch-party, where he knew he would be tempted with alcohol. The all-too-familiar voice of his conscience told him to stay home. But Stoecker brushed off the advice and made his way to the party.
That car ride on Jan. 31, 2009 — one Stoecker vividly remembers — is still a part of his recovery story.
“The Rolling Stones came on the radio, and I can’t stand the Rolling Stones,” Stoecker said. “So I started flipping through trying to find something else and I came to a dead spot. I waited to see what was going to play.”
Lyrics to a Christian song by Brandon Heath resounded through the car: “I wish you could see me now, I wish I could show you how I’m not who I was.”
In that moment, Stoecker said a voice he had never heard before, whom he attributes to God, said to him, “Go home, you got this.”
“I pulled over to the side of the road and bawled,” Stoecker said. “I turned around and drove home and I haven’t used since.”
Now, more than eight years sober, Stoecker said he lives in “long-term recovery” where he confronts addiction. He said he believes in the theory that substance abuse contains three factors: 50 percent of the problem stems from a genetic disposition for addiction, 30 percent from the outside environment and 20 percent from mental health issues.
Stoecker’s addiction testimony combines all three.
“My first memory was being molested by a babysitter when I was probably 3,” Stoecker said. “My father had a drinking problem. My mom left my dad the first week of fifth grade and dropped us off at her parents’ house.”
Stoecker said he spent the next two years living with his grandparents.
“My grandpa was mean, angry and evil,” Stoecker said. “He was the kind of person that would beat me … and then keep me out of school for a week so that I could heal up.”
Memories of physical and sexual abuse haunted Stoecker until he found his solution: drugs. In seventh grade, he drank alcohol and smoked marijuana for the first time. A few years later, Stoecker graduated to methamphetamine.
At age 22, Stoecker sustained injuries from a serious car wreck. He said doctors placed him on morphine, a highly addictive pain reliever. From that point on, Stoecker’s two drugs of choice became morphine and methamphetamine.
“It numbed me,” Stoecker said. “It helped me escape and I really liked being numb and escaping. I decided if I stayed that way, nothing could hurt me and I didn’t have to think about my past.”
When he initially committed to sobriety on that Super Bowl Sunday, Stoecker said he “got really busy” by making recovery a huge part of his life. He attended as many meetings as he could, he ended friendships with people who used, and he got involved in the community.
Today, Stoecker is a husband and a father. He also has a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Missouri State, and is the director of an organization called Better Life in Recovery. This local nonprofit is dedicated to spreading awareness and providing education on substance abuse and mental health issues.
Stoecker said Better Life in Recovery also organizes social events, like bowling, karaoke and community service opportunities for people in recovery.
“To me, it’s about making people necessary to their communities and showing people how amazing their life can be in recovery,” Stoeker said. “I would say recovery is my job, my hobby and kind of my life.”
What was once a repeat vice, now a powerful testimony
Time is indefinite, but the timespan of a human life is not. Samantha Downs, a Missouri State University student, said addiction stole her time — time she’ll never get back.
“It started out fun — it always does though,” Downs said, while recollecting her time spent spiraling in and out of sobriety.
Down’s addiction story begins in high school. She said she went to high school parties and continued smoking marijuana and drinking when she started school at Missouri State in 2003.
One night, Downs attended a college party in Springfield where she experimented with methamphetamine.
“At that point in my life, I was somebody who had to touch the stove to know that it was going to burn me,” Downs said. “I didn’t really want to listen to anybody because they said so. I just wanted to learn through my own experience. So, I tried (meth).”
She recalled telling a friend about her experience of trying meth.
“I said (to her) ‘You know, I was just trying,” Downs said. “I just wanted to say that I’d tried it once. For me, that’s all it took.”
Her parents found out and sent her through a 30-day treatment in a rehabilitation center at 18 years old.
Downs’ first round of treatment didn’t create permanent change. Although she stayed away from meth for about a year, Downs continued partying and experimenting with other drugs.
“I did things I hadn’t tried before like mushrooms (and) ecstasy,” Downs said. “I continued to drink and I continued to smoke pot and do these things. I just really didn’t get it.”
Two years later, in 2005, Downs went through another bout of rehabilitation. This round of 30 days in treatment set her on a path of seven years away from drugs, but it did not stop her alcohol consumption.
By 2010, Downs moved to Arkansas to attend the University of Arkansas. She said she didn’t really know anyone when she arrived.
“Then I met this guy and I really thought I liked him,” Downs said.
Downs opened up to him about her struggles with addiction and let him know that she shouldn’t be around these substances.
“One night, we had been out drinking and this guy just takes me to this environment and there’s meth again,” Downs said. “So, I used. I really cared about this guy and I thought that this was the kind of person that they wanted in their lives. Someone who partied, someone who did these things.”
After this relapse and over the next few years, Downs totaled her car and was evicted from her home. She spent time with a bad crowd and began to give up on her family.
“Finally, I said ‘I just can’t do it here in Arkansas,’” Downs said. “Then one night my stepdad came and got me.”
After arriving back in Missouri, Downs’ family helped her get into a long-term treatment center. Downs stayed in treatment for the next five months.
Downs realized how much alcohol had influenced her decisions at the center.
“I had to realize, for me, alcohol put me in an environment that was going to make me relapse on other stuff,” Downs said. “I had to realize that maybe alcohol was my drug of choice. … Any trouble I’ve ever been in stemmed from alcohol.”
Downs, five years sober, spends a lot of time with her family. She competes in roller derby competitions and will soon finish her degree at Missouri State.
“You only keep what you have by giving it away,” Downs said. “So, by sharing my story and being there for people who want to connect and want to find out more and being an example that change is possible, that’s super huge to me.”
A nation crippled by opioids
In addition to the 94 overdose calls the Springfield Police Department responded to from January to June 2017, 99 were made in 2015, and 87 in 2016, seven fatal. So how can Greene County handle a national epidemic that is growing right in its backyard?
Drug monitoring programs are considered by the CDC to be “among the most promising state-level interventions to improve opioid prescribing, inform clinical practice, and protect patients at risk.”
Springfield City Council and Greene County Commission have implemented their own Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs. These programs collect data from pharmacies to monitor the number of controlled substances dispensed.
An immediate solution to overdoses is Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Stoecker said he holds Narcan training sessions within the community, where he equips people with the drug and teaches them how to administer it in the event of an overdose.
“Dead people don’t get sober,” Stoecker said. “We need to keep people alive long enough to get them in recovery.”
If you or someone you know needs help:
•Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
•Missouri State Counseling Center
Carrington Hall, Room 311
Office hours: Monday - Friday, 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.