Hospitals fill, families pick up the pieces in wake of Orange County’s opioid addiction

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(Hannah Miller / Daily Titan)

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(Pictured: Mitchell Fleitman, courtesy of the Fleitman Family)

There’s no way this can be a coincidence. It can’t just be parental misdirection or some bad kids. There’s something bigger at play. Margie Fleitman, Solace of Orange County co-founder

Bob Jones of Lake Forest said he first thought his son Ian’s heroin addiction was a matter of choice, and he didn’t gather a clearer understanding until it was too late. Why his son couldn’t “man up and get over it and get a job and meet some new people” was a simple question needing an answer; but the answer Jones got was not the one he was prepared for.

“Dad, I just can’t stop. I can’t not steal. I can’t not have money to go buy. I just can’t. I have to,” Jones remembers Ian saying to him no less than three years ago. It wasn’t until then that Jones said he understood the tight hold addiction had on his son.

“We didn’t know how to deal with it,” Jones said. “He wanted out of it. He had no choice.”

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(Pictured: Ian Jones, courtesy of the Jones Family)

On the afternoon of Oct. 20, 2014, Jones had been sitting in his dining room when he got up to knock on Ian’s door, 25 feet away. Behind that door, Ian sat slumped over his desk with a final dose of heroin laying next to his head, dead at 26 years old. Jones had spoken with him just two hours earlier.

“I never anticipated that he could die. Didn’t cross my mind,” Jones said. “That day with the paramedics and fire department coming in our home trying to rescue him, it was a hell of a scene and experience and changed our lives forever.”

Young people between the ages of 18 to 34 comprised a large segment of the county’s nearly 141 percent upsurge in the yearly rate of opioid-related emergency room visits between 2005 (684 cases) and 2015 (1,769 cases), according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

“There’s no way this can be a coincidence. It can’t just be parental misdirection or some bad kids. There’s something bigger at play,” said Margie Fleitman of Mission Viejo, whose son Mitchell died at 22 from a mixture of substances that included heroin in 2010. Mitchell made one emergency room visit before his death.

“This is the beginning of an epidemic,” Fleitman said.

Numbers provided by the Orange County Coroner reveal that the last six years saw a general upward trend in opioid-related deaths.

Research analyst for the coroner division Donna Meyers said the reported deaths “cannot only involve opioids, but other prescription or illicit drugs as well.”

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(Hannah Miller / Daily Titan)

 

In Orange County in 2011, there were 242 opioid-related deaths, 54 of which were from illicit opioids; 136 from prescription opioids; and 52 from a mixture of the two. The yearly death toll steadily rose, and in 2016 there were 317 deaths, 79 of which were from illicit opioids; 149 from prescription opioids; and 89 from a mixture.

Fleitman’s family is just one of many left to pick up the pieces after opioids took one of their own.

“Everybody wants to quote a bunch of numbers and statistics,” Fleitman said. “For us, it’s personal. For us, it’s first names.”

In 2016, Cal State Fullerton was awarded a three-year grant to assist Orange County residents struggling with substance abuse, according to a statement from the CSU Chancellor’s Office.

This effectively funded a new curriculum to be implemented in existing nursing, social work and human services classes to train 650 students and 75 health care professionals on how to intervene when substance abuse is suspected, according to the CSU Chancellor’s Office.

CSUF nursing professor, registered nurse and program director Beverly Quaye, Ed.D., said in a statement that her hope was that “students and professionals completing the training at CSU Fullerton will be able to detect substance abuse disorder earlier and ensure more patients get appropriate intervention and treatment.”

The lion’s den

Fleitman, a member of the Orange County Drug and Alcohol Advisory Board, cautions others from assuming they’re immune.

“At one time, we were all those same families making those same assumptions,” Fleitman said. “(Addiction) can absolutely start at any time, and you can be totally taken off guard.”

On Wednesday nights, the security guards of Mission Viejo’s Norman Murray Community Center watch a cluster of parents like Jones and Fleitman pass the front desk to gather in a conference room too small for a turnout that grows weekly.

Each meeting, hosted by Fleitman’s co-founded organization Solace of Orange County, attracts at least one new person that Margie says is seeking support with a loved one lost or imperiled by addiction.

Shirley Bradford of Capistrano Beach said at one meeting that she lost her 20-year-old son to an accidental overdose.

“I never suspected anything. His grades were fine,” Bradford said. “I was just either so naïve or so stupid. It didn’t even dawn on me that he went down that road.”

Fleitman said cases like Bradford’s are all too common.

“What we learned through our tragedies and experiences is that no one is immune,” Fleitman said. “It doesn’t matter what neighborhood you live in, or what your education is or whether you’re a stay-at-home mother or not. None of that matters.”

If you were to orchestrate where are you getting the most bang for your buck, it would be Orange County. Mark Georgeson, supervisor for Client Care Recovery

Cindy Wilson, a drug addiction outreach worker, never detected it in her own grandson.

“He called me in January wanting to come down. I kept putting him off because I thought his dad had kicked him out of the house. That still haunts me,” Wilson said at a Solace meeting. “I’m in the program. I’m helping kids, and I couldn’t help my own grandson.”

Former addiction patient Mark Georgeson, now a supervisor for the private San Juan Capistrano rehab clinic Better Life Recovery, described Orange County as the “lion’s den” of the drug crisis.

“It’s the perfect storm. Everyone wants to live in Southern California. It’s affluent. Drugs are easy to get,” Georgeson said. “If you were to orchestrate where are you getting the most bang for your buck, it would be Orange County.”

Some county officials are reluctant to label the local situation an epidemic, a term that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has applied to a nationwide problem that has now, according to the Police Executive Research Forum, killed more Americans in one year than the entire Vietnam War did in 20.

Regarding Orange County, opioids “would be more of a crisis than an epidemic,” said Sandra Fair, administrative manager for the Health Care Agency’s Behavioral Health Services. “But certainly we have an opioid problem here, and it is of grave concern.”

Fleitman disagreed.  

“I think ‘crisis’ is too nice of a word,” Fleitman said. “It’s too watered down.”

The stigma

From the first Solace meeting the Daily Titan sat in on, those with lost loved ones could barely get through the first few sentences of their stories without crying. As the weeks went by and each Wednesday came along, those same faces got further into their stories than they did the meeting before. Slowly, some got through with no tears at all.

It’s been seven years since Mitchell’s death, and his mother says she often questions remarks from parents who think addiction could never hit them.

“One of the things I always hear is ‘I kept my kids really busy with sports,’ or ‘They were AP and honors students,’” Fleitman said. “It shows us quite clearly that the stigma is out there, and that still needs to be fought on a daily basis. We have to continue to push that away.”

Fleitman stands by her belief that those struggling from addiction shouldn’t be blamed.

“I’m not angry at my son,” Fleitman said. “Nobody chooses this as a life goal. This is nothing that any of our kids intended to happen.”

One mother who frequents the Solace meetings did not want to be identified, but wished it to be known in an email that her son did everything he could to beat his disease.

“He even tried methadone in the hopes of beating his addiction. Drug addict or not, he had a good heart,” she said. “He made sure his friends had socks, shoes and warm clothes … He was the first to offer to help you fix your car, move furniture. You get the picture. He leaves behind a wife and a beautiful child. I miss him so much.”

She keeps a letter written to her by her son before he died of an accidental overdose:

To the most important woman in my life: I’ve tried and tried throughout my life to show

you how much I appreciate all you have done for me, how much you’ve loved me, how often you’ve placed my needs, even my selfish wants ahead of your needs.

I try to show you my appreciation, yet it always falls short, and I was never able

to understand until now, that I will never adequately be able to show my appreciation,

that whatever I try will always fall short. It’s because nothing on this earth is as true or as

pure as a mother’s love. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. I love you so

much. Happy Mother’s Day!

 

Amy Wells and Mariana Vera contributed this report.

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