Around 45 people gathered on Wednesday evening in the Baker Park Band Shell for a candlelight vigil to mark Overdose Awareness Day, an annual international event to raise awareness of overdoses and reduce the stigma of drug-related death.
It was one of the few awareness events in Frederick this year, despite what many attendees describe as an epidemic of opioid drug abuse in the area. According to the most recent data from the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, there have been 206 heroin-related overdoses in the county since the start of 2016. Twenty-three of those overdoses have been fatal.
Kellie Warfield, a recovering oxycodone addict who organized the event, said the idea came to her a few weeks ago in a dream.
“I dreamed I was speaking at a candlelight vigil, and when I woke up, I thought, ‘I need to do this! Why haven’t I done this?’” Warfield said. She coordinated the vigil after 3½ weeks of planning. She hopes to make it a yearly event with a bigger turnout.
Though the event date was selected to coincide with Overdose Awareness Day, its overall mission was different. According to Warfield, the main purpose was not only to honor overdose victims and their families, but also to bring together a variety of perspectives on drug addiction.
After speaking about her own recovery experience, Warfield opened the floor to other attendees, many of whom have lost family members to overdoses or continue to support children who abuse drugs. Though anyone was welcome to attend the event, most stories involved addiction to heroin or opioid prescription drugs.
Deborah Harris, 51, took the stage to remember her son, Andrew, who died Dec. 23 from an overdose of heroin laced with fentanyl.
According to Capt. Tim Clarke, a special operations commander at the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, there has been a marked uptick in cases involving fentanyl, an opioid with 80 times the potency of morphine. Dealers often sell heroin laced with or totally replaced by fentanyl, which makes it much more likely that users will overdose on the drug.
“When they go to buy the product, it looks exactly the same, so a lot of people don’t know,” Clarke said.
Harris said that in Andrew’s case, she wasn’t even aware he had started to use opioids again until he died of an overdose. Though he completed an intensive six-month rehabilitation program at Central Maryland Correctional Facility in Sykesville, Harris said that Andrew’s parole officer failed to report him after he failed mandatory drug tests. Andrew wasn’t issued a monitoring bracelet or given counseling for more than two months after he was released, Harris said.
“He completed the most difficult rehab program in the state, but I don’t think another jail term would have helped him survive,” she said. “There was no structure to help him after he got out.”
Harris’ experience isn’t unusual, according to other vigil attendees. Leslie Scott, whose son, Kevin, died of a heroin overdose last September, said she also wasn’t aware he was using again until she found him dead in his room at their home in the Mountaindale area of Frederick County. To help address the lack of knowledge about the signs of abuse and addiction, a new group called Unity and Action held its first meeting on Monday to help educate friends and family of heroin addicts.
“The issue is still so taboo,” said Ashley Whitby, who spoke at the meeting after losing her husband to a heroin overdose on March 28. “We want to help people who are afraid to reach out and find help.”