Heroin forum starts community conversation
More than 150 people gathered at the New Richmond High School auditorium on Wednesday, Feb. 26, to hear 15 speakers share stories, information and resources about the recent heroin crisis that has gripped nearby Hudson.
The Hudson Police Department has investigated more than a dozen heroin-related overdose deaths over the past few years, and New Richmond Police Chief Mark Samelstad became concerned when his officers started encountering the drug in New Richmond late last year.
“I don’t want to see the City of New Richmond go through what the City of Hudson did for the last year-and-a-half,” Samelstad told the audience at the outset of the three-hour program.
He emphasized that drug education and community forums like this are necessary tools in fighting back against drugs. He favors a community approach to solving the drug problem, which he views as much more than a police issue.
“This is a community problem, folks,” Samelstad said. “Law enforcement is not going to solve this problem.”
The program Samelstad assembled was largely based on a Hudson forum last summer sponsored by the Hudson Community Foundation. That event was an outgrowth of a series of articles by Hudson Star-Observer reporter Meg Heaton. Heaton’s work included stories about recovering addicts, their parents and the parents of young people who died of overdoses.
Among the Hudsonite speakers were recovering addict Phil Drewiske, his father Roger and four other Hudson parents who have recently suffered the loss of a child to heroin.
Cheryl and Bill Solberg
First to speak were Cheryl and Bill Solberg who lost their 21-year-old son Alex in December 2012 to an overdose.
They shared stories about who their son was: a talented trombone-playing kid with a love of theatre, video games and the Green Bay Packers.
“This can happen to any family in New Richmond. It happened to us,” Bill Solberg told the audience.
Cheryl Solberg delivered her emotional message while fighting back tears.
“This is not just an addict’s problem, it is the whole family,” Cheryl said. “It is the friends. It takes everything, your hopes, their hopes, it takes them away from you.”
Cheryl asked everyone in the audience to think for themselves when confronted with drugs, whether they are prescription painkillers, heroin or any other drug.
“If a friend approaches you and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got something you should try,’ you need to ask yourself ‘Do you want to die today?’ because from that moment on everything will change,” Cheryl said.
Phil and Roger Drewiske
Phil Drewiske, a 23-year-old recovering addict, told the story of his addiction, which began with prescription painkillers when he was in middle school and escalated to heroin before he turned 16.
“Everyone portrays heroin as a homeless drug and that you see people on the corner shooting themselves up. As I’m sure you’re all finding out now, that’s not the case,” Phil said. “It’s not just in this area and the Hudson area, but in any area, and it’s starting to kill quite a bit of my friends.”
Phil’s heroin habit became known to his family in his late teens when he was charged with burglary for stealing items from his neighbor’s home.
After getting treatment and going through the St. Croix County drug court program, Phil suffered multiple relapses and eventually found himself in prison. While there, he was able to put himself back together by staying clean, focusing on his young son and setting goals for himself.
He also gave credit to his father Roger Drewiske for always being there for him, even in the most difficult times. One time in particular, Phil said Roger dropped everything he was doing to pick him up at a drug house in the suburbs of St. Paul and take him to a hospital and detox center.
Roger, who spoke just after Phil, shared his experiences from the parent’s point of view with the wish that no one else have to endure what his family did.
“My hope is that through the community organizations — city and county governance, law enforcement, and schools — we can combine to pound this message into our kids’ heads. Starting with that first pill will lead to addiction, prison or death.” Roger said.
Roger also offered practical advice to those in attendance in the form of one step they could take that night to help keep drugs out of the hands of curious teens.
“My hope is that all you parents here take time to look in your medicine cabinet, get rid of the Vicodin, get rid of the Oxycontin — any of the narcotics you still have from when you got your teeth fixed,” Roger said.
Greg Berg lost his 20-year-old daughter Ellie Berg to an overdose in September 2013, just three months after she relapsed and survived an overdose and shared the story with a Twin Cities TV news reporter.
Shortly after Ellie’s death, Greg met with the reporter again to offer a sad update and a wakeup call to the community. Video of both news segments were shown at the forum.
Greg also penned an open letter to Hudson’s youth, which was picked up by local media outlets.
At the forum, he urged parents to not be lulled into believing that hard drugs are a big-city problem that families in western Wisconsin needn’t worry about.
“You wouldn’t think that St. Croix County would have those issues and that reputation, but it does,” Greg said. “Hudson does, New Richmond does, Somerset does, and River Falls does. We know that for a fact otherwise we would not be here tonight talking about this. I also know that for a fact, because my daughter, while she was still alive, would do a lot of partying and troublemaking in those communities, including New Richmond. Don’t think that your community is drug-free, because it isn’t.”
Karen Hale lost her 21-year-old daughter Alysa Ivy to a heroin overdose in May 2013.
Hale shared her story about how she struggled to come to terms with her daughter’s addiction and that she didn’t recognize the signs until it was too late.
“This is a brain disease, and I’ll be damned if I let anyone refer to my daughter as a junkie. My daughter was more than a junkie,” Hale said. “My daughter had a beautiful heart. She was artistic. She had a flair. My daughter had a disease.”
Though Hale’s heartbreaking loss is still less than a year old, she has already become the face of the heroin epidemic resistance in Hudson.
Hale has testified at the State Capitol advocating for bills that could save addicts’ lives. She has been the subject of a Feb. 10 New York Times article and word has it that she has even attracted the attention of Harpo Production, Oprah Winfrey’s production company.
In addition, Hale has taken several young addicts under her wing. She helps them reveal their addiction to their parents and find treatment. Knowing that they’ll likely continue to take drugs, she urges them to use only safe needles and carry Naloxone in the event of an overdose.
Among the bills in the state legislature Hale advocated for are the following:
— AB 445, which requires people who pick up opiate prescriptions show a photo ID
— AB 446, which allows more paramedics and first responders to use Naloxone to counteract overdoses
— AB 447, known as the Good Samaritan Law, which provides limited immunity from prosecution for people who bring another person to an emergency room or call 911 for someone experiencing an overdose
— AB 448, which encourages community drug disposal programs
From the law enforcement side, Veronica Koehler, a detective with the New Richmond Police Department, and Jim Mikla, an investigator with the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office, presented statistics and information from the drug war’s front lines.
St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Edward Vlack spoke briefly about drug-related justice issues and the St. Croix County drug court program he oversees.
Sara Sedahl, an AODA counselor for St. Croix County, shared tips about talking with kids about drugs, including planting the seed in kids as young as toddlers.
“I have a 2- and a 4-year-old. They’re little. I talk to them about prevention,” Sedahl said. “I tell them that you don’t smell things that aren’t flowers or food.”
In addition, Sedahl quickly rattled off a list of resources for parents, young people and even for those who are already addicts.
Other speakers from the healthcare field included Scott Hesseltine, director of clinical support and operations at the Hazelden addiction treatment center, and Dr. Marty Richards, emergency physician at Westfields Hospital.
Hesseltine underscored the seriousness of the current heroin epidemic when he said that the number of overdose deaths each year has eclipsed the number of car accident deaths.
Richards shared a brief history of how we got here, including some eye-opening information about how physicians may have been over-prescribing powerful pain medications for the past generation in fear of lawsuits brought by family members who sued doctors and hospitals over pain and suffering felt by loved ones who later died.
Finally, New Richmond High School Principal Tom Wissink took the stage as the event’s final speaker.
Wissink urged parents to keep an eye out for warning signs that children may be involved with drugs, including changes in dress, grooming, mood, eating habits. He also urged parents to remove unneeded prescription drugs from their homes.
“When I was growing up, the drugs were coming from Colombia, Panama and now Mexico,” Wissink said. “It occurred to me that’s not where it’s coming from anymore. We’re bringing it home and putting it in our medicine cabinet. And our kids are getting a hold of it. It’s scary.”
In his final remarks, Samelstad reminded attendees that the New Richmond Police Department has a collection box for unwanted medications.