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updated: 7/21/2015 5:28 PM

What's next in suburbs' fight against heroin?

Helping athletes, bringing antidote to prisons are next in fight against heroin

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  • Darlene Ruscitti, DuPage County regional superintendent, says her office is developing a webinar with information about heroin prevention to reach more parents about the topic.

      Darlene Ruscitti, DuPage County regional superintendent, says her office is developing a webinar with information about heroin prevention to reach more parents about the topic.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer October 2014

  • Live 4 Lali, an Arlington Heights-based nonprofit, has donated doses of the heroin overdose antidote naloxone for use by first-responders in Kane County.

      Live 4 Lali, an Arlington Heights-based nonprofit, has donated doses of the heroin overdose antidote naloxone for use by first-responders in Kane County.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer March 2015

  • Awareness of the heroin problem in the suburbs is increasing as events such as the LTM Heroin Awareness and Support Foundation fun run and walk in Addison spread the message about the dangers of the deadly opiate.

      Awareness of the heroin problem in the suburbs is increasing as events such as the LTM Heroin Awareness and Support Foundation fun run and walk in Addison spread the message about the dangers of the deadly opiate.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer August 2014

 
 

Roughly two years into a growing campaign against heroin in the suburbs, those in the trenches continue to seek new ways to attack the problem on multiple fronts.

The hope is to break the hold the deadly drug has on far too many lives that reach across all boundaries of age, geography and social standing from Naperville to Antioch.

But the enemy is relentless. As it has become cheaper, purer and easier to ingest, heroin has increasingly become a drug of choice in the suburbs and across the country.

The problem is hardly new, but until DuPage County Coroner Richard Jorgensen and some others came forward to push it into the political spotlight in the fall of 2013, many who could have made a difference in the suburbs turned a blind eye.

Jorgensen, on the other hand, refused to keep quiet as he looked closer into heroin deaths and found they spread geographically across the county and didn't discriminate.

In 2013 alone, Jorgensen said, the drug killed 46 people in DuPage County. Last year, the county's death toll fell to 33, but only because of the availability of a heroin overdose reversal drug called naloxone. Without it, 66 people would have died from heroin in DuPage.

Since then, and especially in the past year, those frightening numbers have motivated educators, nonprofits, police, treatment providers, coroners and others to strengthen existing initiatives and pursue new ones aimed at reducing heroin use and cutting the number of overdose deaths.

DuPage educators, for example, are brainstorming ideas to raise awareness of the drug's dangers because they're finding few people are attending traditional forums -- either because they're too busy or because they think heroin won't find its way into their families.

The regional school superintendent's office hopes to overcome those obstacles this summer by creating a webinar to distribute to parents electronically.

"Parents are so busy, so we keep trying to think of new ways we can share new information without asking them to be at a hundred events a year," said Katherine Leibforth with the Hinsdale-based Robert Crown Center.

The office also is focusing on the athletic population, which has been identified as "a high-risk group" because of injuries that give athletes access to opiate pain medications that have been identified as a gateway to heroin use.

Several events in August will address drug use among young athletes, and DuPage Regional Superintendent Darlene Ruscitti said coaches and parents will be obligated to attend.

Also beginning this fall, a Naperville-based nonprofit called ParentsMatterToo will run a campaign against prescription drug abuse, building on efforts to get unnecessary drugs out of medicine cabinets.

At the same time, the Lake County Opioid Initiative is working on several new projects, including development of an addiction information hotline and a resource packet that police officers can hand out when they respond to heroin cases.

Lake County inmates who are addicted to an opioid soon will be taught how to use a naloxone injection, too, in case of an overdose.

While the inmates will be encouraged to get treatment, they also will be given naloxone upon release as a precaution.

"I don't know where else that is happening in the country," said Susan McKnight, substance abuse program coordinator for the Lake County Health Department.

Addicts are at a high risk of overdosing when they leave jail or rehab, McKnight said, because using the same amount of the drug has a greater effect on those who have been clean for weeks or months.

Saving overdosed addicts with naloxone is a start, but not the endgame, said George Filenko, Round Lake Park police chief.

"It's great that we're reviving people," he said. "But this is still a problem. Arresting people isn't solving it. That's a portion, but there has got to be information and treatment."

The DuPage County Health Department recently hired Nick Gore, a recovering heroin addict, to help launch a new program called Project Connect, which will help people who were saved by naloxone get connected with the resources they need to get into rehab and make a full recovery.

Jorgensen said it will create "a more organized approach to helping heroin addicts," since the county currently doesn't have a method in place for following up with people who were saved.

Treatment providers have been working to address a gap in communication that arises after revived overdose patients leave the hospital. Sometimes they're released without much direction for follow-up care or information about treatment programs, said Jim Scarpace of Gateway Foundation Alcohol and Drug Treatment in Aurora.

"We're starting to form partnerships and collaborations to help us really get individuals that struggle with this issue the help they need," he said. "But we're at the early stages."

In Kane County, partnerships have resulted in a donation of naloxone for use by first responders from Live 4 Lali, an Arlington Heights-based nonprofit.

Coroner Rob Russell said it's proof that collaboration works.

It's that kind of collaboration that experts say will be key in the ongoing fight against heroin. There are no simple solutions, no magic bullets.

When Jorgensen first raised his concerns about the spread of the drug in 2013, there was little momentum to stop it -- and even some resistance to admitting it was a problem.

Many of those attitudes are shifting, but experts say there is still a long way to go and no guarantee the battle against heroin won't again be pushed to a back burner as other concerns materialize.

"It's a huge problem, and not one entity or not one advocacy group or one government agency can handle it by themselves," Russell said.

"It affects everybody and I think we can all take a little ownership."

• See our full "Heroin in the Suburbs: Through Their Eyes" series at http://bit.ly/DailyHeraldHeroinSeries.

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