DuPage responding to record number of heroin deaths
Nick Gore has seen enough friends die from abusing heroin to know it's "an absolute miracle" he survived his own addiction to the drug.
"I should not be having this conversation," the 29-year-old Bartlett resident said. "It's super rare that I made it this far."
The one-time hockey standout started using heroin after first becoming addicted to painkillers. During the nearly 11 months he used the drug, Gore said, he lied, stole from his family and committed credit card fraud to finance his habit.
"When you put heroin in your body, it steals your soul," he said. "There's nothing left. Your morals, your dignity, your integrity, anything that you were raised with ... it's gone."
Gore said he has managed to stay sober for nearly two years. Others he knows haven't been so fortunate, including a buddy from Elgin who died in November of a heroin overdose.
"I've lost a lot of friends," Gore said. "And I still have friends out there who are sick and suffering right now."
He said the best way to prevent someone from going through what he and his friends have experienced is to stop them from trying heroin in the first place.
It's a strategy DuPage County officials are pursuing after dealing with a record-number of heroin-related deaths in 2013. DuPage plans to spend $100,000 on a prevention campaign that will include educating students in schools countywide about the hazards of heroin.
"We need this to be in every middle school and every high school," Coroner Richard Jorgensen said. "You need to have a program where all these kids hear about a scientific, intelligent, reasoned approach to why they shouldn't take drugs."
The call for action in DuPage came months before the county surpassed its year-old record of 38 heroin-related deaths in 2012.
Officials say there were 45 confirmed heroin-related deaths in 2013 in DuPage. And depending on the results of toxicology tests, Jorgensen said the final number could climb by one or two.
"If this was gang or gun violence in DuPage County and someone was being killed every eight days, I think the communities would be up in arms," Wood Dale police Chief Greg Vesta said.
Of the 45 confirmed deaths in DuPage, 39 were men. The oldest was 64 and the youngest was 15. Twenty-one of the victims who died of a heroin overdose were 20 to 29 years old.
"The reality is that we have people in all age ranges that have had heroin addiction and have died of heroin overdoses," Jorgensen said. "But we skew to the 20s because you don't live a heroin-addicted lifestyle for many decades. You either end up in the criminal justice system ... or you end up in the morgue."
The victims lived in towns throughout DuPage, which shows the problem is countywide.
"This is not a Wood Dale problem. This is not a Lombard problem," Jorgensen said. "This is a county problem."
Other counties are dealing with it as well.
In Will County, officials reported 34 heroin-related deaths through early December. Kane County had 21 confirmed heroin overdoses. But Kane officials say they won't have a final number for 2013 until they learn the results of some toxicology tests.
Final numbers also aren't available for McHenry and Lake counties. Through the end of November, McHenry had 15 heroin-related deaths and Lake had 11.
Meanwhile, Cook County officials said they couldn't break heroin deaths out of larger classifications of deaths.
Wood Dale police Sgt. William Frese said a common misconception is that heroin addicts are poor and come from bad families.
"They are from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds," he said. "And many come from supportive and good families."
When Gore decided to try heroin for the first time, he snorted it. And the countless times that followed, he never had to stick a needle in his arm to get high.
That, experts say, is one reason there's a growing trend of heroin use and deaths across the Chicago area and the nation.
Because of changes made in the way they produce the drug, criminal organizations are creating heroin that's much more pure than it was just a decade ago.
As a result, the drug doesn't need to be injected anymore, Vesta said. That makes some people less afraid to try it.
Another problem is that the drug is easier to get, according to Linda Lewaniak, director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates.
"It used to come from Afghanistan and Turkey," she said. "It now comes from the Mexican cartels."
Lewaniak said gangs in Chicago are selling heroin for far less than it used to cost.
"It's cheaper than marijuana," Gore said. "It's more accessible than marijuana."
While law enforcement officials are doing everything they can to keep illegal drugs off the street, Frese said authorities can't arrest their way out of the heroin problem.
"You take one (dealer) out, another one goes right back in," he said. "It's going to keep happening."
Heroin is more addictive and physically harmful than any other illegal drug, according to Jorgensen, who was a surgeon before becoming coroner.
That's why, he said, it's so important for DuPage to have a public education campaign targeted at heroin prevention. One goal of the effort will be to inform families about warning signs and where to find help. The education campaign — called "Be a Hero in DuPage" — will include a website and social media providing timely information, warning signs and resources, officials said.
Police departments are doing their own outreach. On Jan. 29, Wood Dale and Bensenville police will have heroin awareness presentations at Fenton High School in Bensenville.
During a community forum last month in Wood Dale, Frese told parents they need to be vigilant. "Remember you're the parent of a child," he said. "You're not their friend. Police your own house."
As for Gore, the two-year anniversary of the last time he did heroin is Feb. 27.
He says he still has to work hard to rebuild the trust he lost with his family. But his struggle to stay drug-free has been made easier by sharing his story with others. He has spoken publicly several times and is expected to assist DuPage's education campaign.
"All those people think I'm there doing them a service," Gore said. "But they are helping me more than I'm helping them. I love what I'm doing. It keeps me alive."
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