Ninety-eight candles flickered and 98 seconds of silence were observed for the 98 lives lost from drug overdose in Jefferson County in 2017.
A death from a drug overdose is “something that’s 100% preventable,” said Michael Miller, the opioid initiatives coordinator with Jefferson County Public Health. “But we have to get the right tools into the hands of the right people.”
Jefferson County Public Health hosted its 2019 End Overdose Jeffco event on Aug. 27 at the Edgewater Civic Center. The event took place in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, which takes place annually on Aug. 31.
Throughout the week leading up to Aug. 31, a Sunday, communities across the globe held events to remember those who lost their life to a drug overdose and to support their loved ones, teach people about the tools and resources available to those affected by drug use and to launch campaigns to end the stigma associated with drug addictions.
“A lot of people have a prejudice against people who use drugs, whether they know it or not,” Miller said. “The quicker we’re able to view people who use drugs as humans, the quicker we’ll be able to address this overdose crisis.”
Jefferson County’s End Overdose event included guest speakers — community members who shared their personal stories of overcoming addiction, community leaders who are working toward combating the opioid crisis and representatives from local organizations that provide resources to community members with a drug addiction and their loved ones.
The observation of the 98 lives lost came from the 2017 data, Miller said, because that is the most recent data available for Jefferson County.
A video presentation provided training on how to administer naloxone. Naloxone is a potentially life-saving medication designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. It works by restoring normal respiration to a person whose breathing has slowed or stopped as a result of an opioid overdose. Administering naloxone to someone suffering an overdose of opioids is protected under Colorado’s Good Samaritan Law.
Miller struggled with an opioid addiction for more than a decade and is a multi-time survivor of overdose, he said. Miller added he chooses not to disclose how long he has been in recovery.
“Everybody should have the opportunity to access the help and resources that best fits their needs,” Miller said.
In Jefferson County, some of the tools available to anyone include education on overdose prevention and response as well as training on naloxone, and access to addiction treatment and pathways to recovery.
And, perhaps the most important tool, is working as a community to address the crisis, Miller said.
Joe Martinez, now a health educator with the Tri-County Health Department, shared his personal experience of overcoming addiction to provide “a human face to the crisis,” he said.
Martinez grew up with an ideal childhood in a working-class community of Westminster, he said. At age 9, however, he witnessed a tragedy. By age 11, he started contemplating suicide and by age 15, he started using what he called party drugs. It took attending three different high schools, but Martinez graduated high school in 2003.
At that time, “drug use was a constant in my life, but it wasn’t debilitating,” Martinez said. “At first, it was a party situation but it spiraled fast.”
His mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, which took a toll on the family, and Martinez stared using more heavily. As his mother recovered, Martinez and his brothers were not able to live at home, and they became homeless — living out of a backpack and stealing to eat.
On July 12, 2013, there was a thunderstorm, Martinez recalled, and he and his brothers went home for the night. He remembered his brother going to the bathroom, and a short bit of time later, Martinez’s brother was found dead from a heroin overdose.
People assumed this would be reason to quit using drugs, Martinez said. But it had an opposite affect — drugs became a coping mechanism.
Martinez eventually lost all his “possessions and savings and relationships and values,” he said.
Martinez quit using last year. He is 33.
“People with lived experience can help like no one else can,” Martinez said. “I promise, when we get back (recover from a drug addiction), we’ll give back.”