Thurmont resident Tina Lowe remembers thinking how odd it was when her son asked her if she would cook him breakfast on a quiet Sunday morning in late June.
At 25, Brandon Michael Terpko was more than capable of making his own food, which is what Tina was just about to tell him, when something made her change her mind.
“And I’m so glad I did,” Tina said on Thursday, as he recalled the last time she saw her son alive.
Brandon returned to his room after the meal, telling his mother that he wanted to nap a while longer to make up for the late night he’d spent out with his brothers. When Brandon hadn’t emerged a few hours later, Tina decided to check on him.
“He was laying there, his phone was in his hand, and he looked so peaceful,” Tina said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “But then I got closer and I realized that his color had changed, and he wasn’t breathing.”
A toxicology report later confirmed that Brandon had died after snorting a lethal dose of cocaine laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. Even as a previously uneventful Sunday rapidly devolved into Tina’s worst nightmare, the unfortunate reality is that such tragedies are disturbingly commonplace in the state’s ongoing opioid epidemic.
By the end of the day June 24, Thurmont police alone had responded to two other fatal opioid-related overdoses in addition to Brandon’s.
While the combined law enforcement agencies of Frederick County responded to 11 fewer opioid overdoses last year than in 2017, last year’s 52 confirmed fatalities surpassed 2017’s total of 51 deaths, according to data compiled by the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office.
Worse still, three deaths remained under investigation by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore as of Dec. 31, meaning 2018 could surpass the record high 54 opioid overdose deaths reported to local law enforcement in 2016.
Perhaps nowhere in the county did the situation seem more dire than in Frederick city, which saw increases in overdoses across the board last year, according to Mark Burack, the Frederick Police Department’s heroin coordinator.
“Overall last year we had 25 fatal overdoses in Frederick city and we had 122 non-fatal for 147 total, now for 2017 the total was 129, we had 111 nonfatal and 18 fatal, so our fatals went up by 7 and our non-fatals went up, as well,” Burack said, citing the department’s data.
Looking deeper, Burack said it quickly became clear that fentanyl, the synthetic opioid at play in Brandon’s death, was likely responsible for the high death rate. Of the 25 fatalities reported to Frederick police last year, all but two involved either fentanyl or some other drug laced with fentanyl, Burack said.
“We’re seeing a more potent substance out there and the ME reports are clearly showing that the predominant mixture is with fentanyl,” the analyst said, citing conservative estimates that put fentanyl at anywhere from 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. “There may be people out there actually seeking fentanyl and knowingly taking fentanyl rather than heroin because it’s a stronger drug and they’re seeking a better high.”
The potency of the opioid mixtures making their way into the county could also be measured by the use of naloxone, a drug that can help reverse the effects of an opioid-related overdose.
The Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services administered 406 doses of naloxone to 272 people last year, according to Battalion Chief Michael Cole, who oversees the division’s emergency medical services branch. While those numbers remained consistent with the number of doses administered in recent years, the fire service also began handing out Narcan kits — a specific brand of naloxone — to patients who have suffered an overdose but refused to go to the hospital.
Launched Aug. 13 after the county was approved for a grant from the state health department in late May, the “leave behind” program had handed out close to 100 doses of Narcan by the end of the year, Cole said.
All local police agencies also equip patrol employees with Narcan kits and closely track the number of doses their officers administer. Frederick police dosed 53 people and recorded 41 “saves” in 2018, while the sheriff’s office dosed 45 people and recorded 29 “saves” during the same time, according to each agency’s records.
As is reflected in the numbers, multiple doses of the drug sometimes have to be used to have the desired effect, likely another effect of the increase in fentanyl mixtures.
“That speaks pretty clearly to the fact that we’re seeing a more potent substance out there,” Burack said, pointing out the data.
Naloxone also hasn’t been a miracle solution to the opioid epidemic. A total of seven people died in the city of Frederick even after police or rescue workers had administered Narcan and one person died after receiving Narcan from sheriff’s deputies in 2018.
Many agencies that deal with the immediate effects of addiction in the region seem to realize new and different solutions are needed to curb the problem.
Plans to bring a detox center to the county and funding for the project moved forward considerably in 2018 and some have taken note of the work done by several peer recovery coaches who began working at select locations in the community in 2017 with the goal of connecting addicts to resources for recovery.
“As soon as possible after an overdose, pretty much directly, [peer recovery coaches] are provided contact information and then they make attempts to reach those victims and I can tell you that they’ve been successful 34 percent of the time,” Burack said of the coaches he works closest within the city. “So 34 percent of the people that they were able to reach, they were able to connect with some level of care, and last year that turned out to be 20 victims.”
Local law enforcement were also adopting strategies to combat the spread of opioids into the area, said Lt. Jason Deater, who heads up the sheriff’s office’s Narcotics Investigation Section.
“We’re out responding to overdoses and certainly every fatal overdose, to interview people and use every investigative technique available to us to determine who was the individual’s last drug dealer or who might have supplied them,” Deater said.
By way of an example, Deater pointed to Tuesday’s arrest of 26-year-old Anthony Dale Davidson, who was charged with four drug offenses after detectives in Deater’s unit identified Davidson as the person who supplied the drugs in a fatal overdose that occurred in September of 2018.
“My mission in my unit is to combat any kind of mid- to upper-level dealers in Frederick or even outside of Frederick who might be dealing in Frederick and hold them accountable,” Deater said. “We’re just one component of the entire system, but I can tell you that our victim services also follows up with the family members of victims. We’re working with other agencies to address the entire problem.”
More and varied support groups were also popping up around the county as more and more residents continue to suffer due to addiction or the addiction of a loved one. Even before first responders arrived at Lowe’s house, her neighbors, Karen and Ed Schildt, were nearby and uniquely suited to help.
“I was home at the time, I remember it was a Sunday afternoon when I got a call that there had been an overdose at Tina’s house,” Karen said as she sat with Tina in the Schildts’ living room last week. “I didn’t know if there was anything I could do, but I grabbed my Narcan kit and ran over.”
Having lost their own son, Chris, to an overdose in 2016, Karen and her husband Ed knew exactly what Tina and her family was going through. The Schildts, who were already acquainted with Tina’s family through their children growing up together, had decided to found a family support group after Chris’ death to help other families.
“We know we can’t save everybody,” Ed said. “But if we can give some parents some way to navigate what we went through and give them some control over their lives, that’s what we need to do.”
Despite the chaos swirling around her home that summer day last year, Tina clearly recalls the kindness of her neighbors in her time of need.
“It’s very hard to describe how you feel at that time other than confused and numb ... but I remember that you guys were there, and I remember that you were wonderful,” Tina said, turning to smile at Karen and Ed. “You were so wonderful for us.”