As overdose deaths tear families apart, paramedics struggle with the devastation on the front lines

Rachelle Jones poses for a picture with her father. Jones' daughter is carrying on her memory...
Rachelle Jones poses for a picture with her father. Jones' daughter is carrying on her memory after she died of an overdose in 2021.(Hannah Wills)
Published: Jul. 7, 2023 at 5:02 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) -- Hannah Wills saw what addiction looked like from a young age. She was about 5 years old when her mom started to struggle with substance use.

Her mom, Rachelle Jones, suffered from severe depression. That contributed to a substance addiction later on, Wills said.

“I always understood that my mom was sick, like there was something wrong,” Wills said. “And she also suffered from mental health issues, which I think a lot of people with substance abuse have hand in hand.”

Sitting on her couch with a shirt that had the words “Overdose Affects Everyone” on it, Wills shared her personal story in hopes that others affected by the overdose crisis will not feel alone.

Wills said her mom never met a stranger and was an energetic person. Jones used to work at an antique store on Main Street in St. Charles and loved it there, Wills said. The two would do arts and crafts together, including a St. Louis Blues blanket that Wills keeps in her living room.

Wills, now 23, said she misunderstood her mom’s addiction as a child. She didn’t come to understand it better until after her mom died.

“It’s one of the worst things I think can happen to people and to families,” she said. “Your family member becomes unrecognizable, your loved one becomes unrecognizable, and you have to remember they’re still there. Love them through that.”

Jones died of an overdose on July 5, 2021, a day Wills calls her angel date. In 2021, 2,163 Missourians died of an overdose. In the same year, there were 1,016 vehicle fatalities and 1,414 firearm deaths, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the CDC.

Wills recalled the good days with her mom, like when she picked her up from school or cooked dinner for the family. There were also the bad ones, when her mom had trouble getting out of the dark circle of depression.

“You think about the good more than you have the bad,” Wills said. “So I always really held on to those really good days when she was awake and would pick me up from school or when the house was clean. It was just like, those good days made up for all of the bad.”

It was around late 2014 when opioid-related calls for service started increasing at the St. Louis Fire Department. Illicit fentanyl was being added to other street drugs, contaminating the drug supply and causing overdose rates to spike.

The number of fentanyl deaths continued to rise in the following years. Paramedic supervisor Chris Thompson has never seen anything like it. He’s been a paramedic for more than 30 years and has been at the St. Louis Fire Department for 24.

“We’re ready for just about anything you can throw at us,” he said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do. But never in my life did I ever imagine that I would see a drug that could absolutely devastate the way this drug has done.”

Fentanyl started to make its mark in neighboring St. Charles County between 2015 and 2017. Overdose responses went from being few and far between to an everyday occurrence.

Lisa Cassidy started her first job as a paramedic at the St. Charles County Ambulance District (SCCAD) 25 years ago. She saw the unexpected rise in overdoses expose a long-held societal stigma toward addiction.

“People just started seeing it so much,” Cassidy said. “A lot of it was people not understanding what addiction is, including our own medics.”

She saw a need for more training. First responders weren’t getting very much education on mental health and substance use at the time, she said.

Paramedics were struggling with compassion fatigue, which Cassidy said led her to reach out to SCCAD leadership in 2016 and advocate for more training and programs. Now, there is more mental health and addiction training for first responders, as well as the Substance Use Recovery Response Team (SURRT).

SURRT was formed to change the overdose response approach. Paramedics started giving out naloxone to families with a substance user and offering to connect people to treatment and recovery services. Grant money has provided the opportunity for free services for those who don’t have insurance or who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

Thompson’s unique sense of humor helps him cope with what he sees on the job. A friend once gave him a bumper sticker that said “I Narcanned your honor student.” It made him laugh. If you don’t laugh about it, Thompson said, you end up crying about it.

The bumper sticker also ended up being a reminder of just how far-reaching the overdose crisis is.

“I thought it was hysterical, until a very, very good friend of mine looked at me and reminded me, ‘That’s my sister. That’s not funny.’ And I thought to myself, I know this kid. She is a bright, young, beautiful kid, 16 years old. And this drug has taken her down that path. I kind of keep that in the back of my head when I deal with this now.”

Thompson said he tries to treat people as if they were a relative. He sees people die from an overdose in the prime of their lives on a regular basis now.

“I have to tell someone the thing you love is gone,” he said, “and there’s not a thing I can do about it.”

Gabrielle Krus’ brother John was 20 when he took a fatal dose of fentanyl. He was prescribed Xanax in high school for anxiety and eventually became dependent on it. He later turned to heroin and fentanyl.

Krus was away at graduate school while her brother’s addiction spiraled.

“I would come back and every time I came back home from visiting it was like he just got worse and worse and worse,” she said.

The brother living with addiction wasn’t the brother she grew up with and knew well. He was a witty kid that loved life’s adventures. He was in the talented and gifted program in school.

That was a far cry from the brother that struggled with fentanyl addiction. His family wasn’t sure if he would graduate high school because of his addiction. He went through bursts of anger that his sister had never seen before, compounded by a traumatic brain injury he suffered from a drug deal gone bad.

The brain injury changed John’s behavior.

“As he was recovering, his personality just changed drastically,” Krus said. “He used to be a really cool, chill person, and then he was so aggravated from then on out.”

John came back from a treatment center in Texas in 2018. He had an appointment scheduled with a mental health counselor to help him work through the underlying factors of his substance use, but it never happened. He died from a fentanyl overdose five days after getting home, on April 14, 2018.

Krus and Wills are members of Surviving Overdose and Understanding Loss (SOUL), a group for people with substance use in their families.

“Going to group has really helped me see that there is more to an addict than what you see or what you think they look like at their worst,” Wills said. “Because what you might see at their worst isn’t what their best is, and so you get that image of what an addict looks like and you forget who they are as a person.”

Both Krus and Wills have turned their grief into purpose. Eleven months after Krus’ brother died, his best friend also died of a fentanyl overdose. That motivated her to change her career path.

“After that, I felt sad, of course, but I felt more anger initially,” Krus said, “and that anger propelled me to switch my field and focus more on getting into substance use treatment.”

She now works as a mental health and substance use therapist to address co-occurring disorders, like what John had.

Wills got her degree in nursing after her mom died and went on to work in the emergency room at a local hospital, where she treats patients who have overdosed.

“A lot of people don’t understand what they’re going through,” Wills said. “They take their rudeness and meanness personally. And it’s not personal, it’s not towards you, they’re just dealing with a lot more with what they’re going through besides what you see on the surface.”

After her mom died, Wills found a 1-month sober coin from an NA meeting as she was going through her things.

“That seems pretty simple, like oh, it’s 30 days of not touching something,” Wills said. “But for addicts, it’s the only thing they think about. It’s just a constant thought, I need this, I need this now, I can’t breathe, I can’t eat, I can’t drink without it. So getting 30 days past that is a huge accomplishment.”

The coin made Wills proud when she found it. She keeps it in her car as a memory of her mom.

John ended up graduating high school despite his struggles with addiction. His senior pictures were taken in his favorite shirt, a blue Hawaiian button-down with flowers on it. It’s the shirt his family buried him in.

John Krus poses for his high school senior pictures. He wore his favorite shirt, which his...
John Krus poses for his high school senior pictures. He wore his favorite shirt, which his family buried him in.(Gabrielle Krus)

Krus was cleaning out her home office a few years after her brother’s death when she was at a low point in her grief. She felt guilty and wondered what she could have done differently.

As she was recycling old files, she found a letter John wrote to her in middle school.

“Dear Gabbie,

Thank you for being the best sister ever! I hope you have a great time at college. I’ll miss you a lot! So will mom. Happy birthday!”

Krus taped the letter to a cabinet in her office.

A letter John Krus wrote to his sister when he was younger sits taped on a cabinet in her office.
A letter John Krus wrote to his sister when he was younger sits taped on a cabinet in her office.(Gabrielle Krus)

Fore more stories, resources, and education on the overdose crisis, visit