Voices for the voiceless

Heroin and opioid abuse is a regionwide epidemic. In Culpeper, one mother and one town councilman speak out so others might find help

It may have been Joe Fleming’s first time doing heroin.

It was also his last.

Joe died on Oct. 13 at age 23 of a heroin overdose. He was in his friend Isaac Dean’s house, who just 84 hours earlier had overdosed and died himself.

Joe snorted heroin, along with another man, and died.

His mother, Dee Fleming, started the Facebook group Culpeper Overdose Awareness to help give a voice to those who need it, to those like her son who felt the temptation to use and then never had a chance to learn from it.

‘He just didn’t want to feel’

The sad story of Joe’s death began on Oct. 9, when it was discovered his best friend Isaac had died of an overdose.

Dee, her husband John and sons Ryan, Jacob and Josh (along with Joe) consoled Isaac’s widow Amber. Dee, maybe prophetically, told Amber she needed to address Isaac’s death publicly.

“I had said to Amber you have to be a voice, you have to speak out for people who are struggling with this,” Dee said.

On the night of Oct. 13, Joe left his job at Merchants Grocery and went over to Isaac’s house with another man — one his friends knew used heroin. His youngest brother Josh and another friend tried to convince him to go home. He didn’t.

He snorted the drug and then Amber’s relatives, who were upstairs sleeping at the time, were later alerted that Joe wasn’t breathing. They called the authorities, but by that time it was too late.

He was gone.

“We knew Joe smoked pot, but we had no idea that he was doing coke,” Dee said. “It may have been his first time doing heroin, but we have no way of being sure. All of his friends were just shocked.”

So was his mother, who was working as a caregiver at Old House Vineyards when she got the call from her oldest son Ryan.

Joe was gone. He had overdosed on heroin.

“It just didn’t compute,” Dee said. “I had never known him to do anything like this.”

News spread quickly. A post was put on Facebook and soon Joe’s friends flooded their house, shocked and looking for comfort.

That’s when Dee knew she needed to speak out.

“I said ‘we just need to talk about this and put it out,” Dee said. “I talked with all my boys and my husband and said ‘are you OK with this? People need to know kids are dying from this.’”

The morning Joe died was Isaac’s birthday and also the day of his viewing. She thinks her son just hurt too much at the passing of his friend.

“I think just sitting at Isaac’s house, he just didn’t want to feel for a while,” Dee said. “We don’t think he did it intentionally because he had just bought clothes.”

Dee, strong in faith, still curses when she thinks about the fleeting chance that her son may have had. Instead of calling the authorities, the person he was with apparently cleaned up the evidence before alerting the others in the house about Joe’s condition.

“This is what is so [expletive] up about the situation,” Dee said. “This kid said he woke up to the sound of Joe gurgling. He did not go upstairs to get the people who were staying upstairs. By the time he came and got them, Joe was cold. The detective said it was obvious there was some cleaning up done.”

Throughout this process, Dee said she’s been stressing to people to pick up 911 and call, no matter the situation.

“It could save that life,” she said.

Making a difference

Speaking out about his death is Dee’s way of trying to make something good out of a horrible situation. She doesn’t want other families to suffer the way her and Amber’s have and she said having a conversation about drug abuse in our community is one that is overdue.

“I just felt like it’s important that this is a normal part of our dialogue as a community,” Dee said. “We can’t ignore it. That was my goal, to get people comfortable talking about it.”

She created the Facebook page and then took Revive training — a process that gives community members an opportunity to have NARCAN and learn how to administer the life-saving drug.

Talking about her son’s death has given her a purpose.

“Honestly, this is the only time I feel alive,” Dee said. “When I’m not is when despair sets in. Everyone says ‘oh, you’re so brave to do this.’ Actually I’m terrified. I’m scared someone else is going to die from this. Another mother is going to be sitting across a table from you telling her story. I want to do everything I can to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

She doesn’t want her son’s death to be in vain.

“His death has to mean something and make a difference in someone else’s life,” Dee said.

She stressed that heroin addiction, drug addiction can happen to anyone. She’s heard stories about teenagers to older men. It can happen to single people or family men. Isaac had two young children he left behind, addiction doesn’t discriminate.

“Your background doesn’t matter,” Dee said. “There’s no demographic.”

Many become hooked after taking prescription drugs. That wasn’t the case for Joe, even though he had a few injuries from football — he played for the homeschool football team The Disciples in Richmond. Instead, the loss of his playing days may have led to his experimentation with drugs.

“Joe was so involved with football, it was five years of his life,” Dee said. “In the off season he’d play rugby. I think the loss of that was the start of all of this. I think that was the start of trying to find something else to occupy his time.”

The family’s faith is strong, Dee said, and the continued prayers of their friends have lifted them up. However, prayers can only do so much and he she hopes that others speak out to help loved ones – before prayers are all they have left as well.

“That is the only way we can get through, through prayer,” Dee said. “I think about this way, my kids are just on loan for me from the Lord. I wish I had known he was only on loan for 23 years, but I know he’s in a better place. Whatever pain he was experiencing, he’s not experiencing any more.”

‘It can happen to anyone’

Jon Russell is a Culpeper Town Councilman, the chairman of the Culpeper Republican Committee and a loving family man. Even he is not immune to the epidemic.

Roughly a month ago, his youngest sister Ashley passed away from a heroin overdose.

“It had kind of a 10-year, slow train wreck,” Russell said. “It started with other hard drugs. She got in with the wrong crowd. You knew it was going to come to an end unless she got help.”

His youngest sister was living in Louisville, Ky., and had struggled with addiction for some time. Russell said they grew up in a rough family atmosphere — with an abusive mother and a father who was not in the picture. As soon as he graduated high school, he left, soon followed by his middle sister. Ashley was left with the brunt of it.

She turned to find comfort in the wrong places and Russell tried on numerous occasions to help. Each time, he was rebuked.

“I had flown out to Louisville a couple of times on business and while I was there tried to reach out to her,” Russell said. “The times I went out and tried to connect with her, she decided to go out and do drugs instead of meeting.”

Ashley, 31, had five children, including a newborn. Her addiction led her down a dark path.

“She ended up prostituting herself out for heroin,” Russell said.

It was last month that his other sister called after hearing from a social worker. Ashley had been found dead in an apartment with a needle in her arm. His sister has taken over the care of the newborn and the other children are with different family members.

Russell stressed that addiction does not discriminate.

“It can happen to anyone,” Russell said. “I went and spoke to a couple of senior groups in the last couple weeks about the issue and said ‘listen, you guys are target No. 1 for break ins or for people to come get your opioids. You need to get rid of them.”

Many opioid abusers begin by with prescription drugs and when those prescriptions run out they look for other ways to find ways to shut out the pain. It can start by rummaging through other people’s medicine cabinets or by eventually turning to heroin.

“It’s a long progression for some people and it’s indiscriminate,” Russell said. “It doesn’t matter, age, it doesn’t matter of color, of income. It’s affecting all of us, no one is immune.”

As a member of local government, Russell is uniquely positioned to be able to address the epidemic. He laid out a three-pronged approach that combines community partnerships along with institutional help.

He stressed education — letting people know what the warning signs and reminding the public to be observant and having community partners like churches step up to help.

“If there are churches out there looking for missions, this is the place to put the money,” Russell said. “This is the place to put the effort and this is where you can make real change.”

He cited Mountain View Church as working with other local churches to find a way to put together a rehab center.

While getting people help is important, he reiterated that it requires someone being with them post rehab to make sure they don’t relapse. He said that only 10 percent of users are able to kick the heroin habit.

“That’s staggering,” Russell said.

His third prong is law enforcement, which he said is already doing a good job but they need reinforcements. That’s where government can play a role.

“I would like to see in this next (town) budget if there’s someplace the police would like us to put more money into the fight,” Russell said. “We have to disrupt the supply coming into Culpeper, we cannot be No. 1 in the region any longer for heroin overdoses.”

Citing his personal experiences, Russell said the community has to play a role in the recovery process.

“Everyone has a job in fighting this,” Russell said. “If someone sees something, they need to say something and get help. Even if the person using it is not willing to be helped, making sure people know about it will go a long way to raise people’s alarms to it.”

What are the warning signs?

Alan Rasmussen, Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services Prevention Specialist, has been on the front lines of trying to stop the problem before it starts.

Prevention starts by working with local coalitions, such as Come As You Are — which helped organize a McShin Foundation recovery center in Warrenton — and taking the message to the public to help educate them.

“If we raise awareness and educate, if people have the information that’s the key,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen stressed the warning signs of overdose victims: shortness of breath, reduced heart rate, intense itching, sudden changes in behavior, disorientation, cycles of hyper alertness followed by “nodding off” and the presence of needles or syringes not used for other medical purposes.

Rasmussen as well advocated for residents to properly dispose of their old medications, pointing out medication drop boxes at area law enforcement agencies. The Culpeper Police Department, Rappahannock Sheriff’s Office and Fauquier County Sheriff’s Department all offer this service.

“It reduces the risk that people have access to these opioids in our homes,” Rasmussen said.

While prevention is important, what happens if someone knows someone who is already using and is worried they may overdose? Rasmussen recommends Revive training for the community, which teaches community members how to use NARCAN (provided by the Virginia Department of Health).

CAYA is one of the coalitions that provides the training.

“People who attend this training can get NARCAN medication so they can revive someone if they have overdosed,” Rasmussen said.

Government on the state level

Del. Nick Freitas, 30th District, knows that the counties he represents (Culpeper, Orange and Madison) are the epicenter of the epidemic. The General Assembly has addressed the issue with multiple pieces of legislation.

“I think one of the things has to do with some of the legislation we passed last year,” Freitas said. “It has to do with closely monitoring legal prescriptions that are going out that are prone to getting people addicted. When the legal prescriptions goes away, they have to find another source, which is very dangerous.”

Another piece of legislation, introduced this year, collects money from the civil asset forfeiture and puts it in a neutral account.

“We want that neutral account to be dedicated in order to help with addiction services,” Freitas said.

While government plays a role in solving the issue, Freitas said that community based organizations, with the support of the General Assembly, can make the biggest difference.

“Government based programs don’t work as well as community based programs,” Freitas said.

“We have state owned facilities that are sitting empty that could be used in order to provide infrastructure for these community based organizations. That’s one the biggest things missing from this whole equation, is a lack of long term treatment.”

How to get help

RRCS will be hosting a Revive training Dec. 12 from 6 to 8 p.m. at their location on Bradford Road. Dee encourages as many people as possible to attend.

“Hopefully we can get NARCAN in the hands of as many people as we can,” Dee said. “My husband and I will carry these everywhere we go. It’s important to have those tools.”