International Overdose Awareness Day event honors lives lost in local epidemic

Published: Aug. 31, 2023 at 10:19 PM CDT
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KIRKWOOD (KMOV) -- Hundreds of pictures of people lost to drug overdoses lined the fence outside Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood Thursday evening. Empty shoes sat on the ground beneath, a symbol of the void left when someone’s life is cut short due to tragedy.

Members of the community recognized International Overdose Awareness Day in St. Louis County with a remembrance walk, a tribute to lives lost, and resources to address an epidemic that cost more than 2,000 Missourians their lives in 2022. H.E.A.L. STOP HEROIN, along with PreventEd, Surviving Overdose and Understanding Loss (SOUL), and MO Network hosted the event as part of the campaign to end overdoses and honor those who have passed away from it.

Participants wore purple, the color used to symbolize overdose awareness. Family members read their loved ones’ names out loud and what age they were when they died, which for many was in their 20s or 30s.

Ellis Fitzwalter lost his son Michael on March 25, 2014, to a heroin overdose. His friends called him Fitz.

“No one was talking about it back then and we were ashamed because of the stigma behind substance use disorder,” Fitzwalter said. “We didn’t talk to even our family for about a year and a half about it.”

Michael was a smart kid and was always teaching his friends something they didn’t know. Fitzwalter and his wife started the H.E.A.L. STOP HEROIN nonprofit to raise awareness after Michael’s death.

“We’re never gonna bring Michael back but we can hopefully prevent others from going down the same path he did,” he said.

Mary Ann Lemonds lost her son Ben at 21 years old to an overdose in 2011. She had a booth at the International Overdose Awareness Day event for her organization, SOUL.

“It’s a really important day to remember those lost to overdose and educate people about substance use disorder and that it is a medical condition and deserves treatment,” she said. “And in hopes of reducing the stigma that people with substance use disorder feel, and their families and their loved ones left behind. We all feel that stigma.”

Ben loved music, Lemonds said. She still feels like she’s stuck in time listening to some of his favorite songs from groups like The Killers and Bob Marley.

Sobriety was hard to maintain for Ben. His substance use started at a young age, making him feel left behind by his friends.

“One reason we wanted to do the walk here in a central location is so people would see how many people have been affected by this,” Lemonds said. “Because I think people think it’s not gonna happen to them, it’ll happen to someone else.”

The International Overdose Awareness Day theme for 2023 is recognizing people who go unseen. It’s an effort to acknowledge those in the community suffering who may otherwise go unnoticed.

According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, 10,777 people died of a drug overdose from 2017 through 2022 in the state. The majority were caused by the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

The epicenter of the crisis in Missouri is the St. Louis region. The city of St. Louis had the highest overdose death rate in the state in 2022 at 109.57 per 100,000 residents. More people died in the city in 2020 and 2021 due to drug overdose compared to COVID-19.

Fitzwalter emphasized the importance of the community working together in the face of a public health epidemic like overdoses.

“It’s gonna take a village,” he said. “There’s no one single organization that’s gonna beat this by themselves. It’s gonna take teamwork from everyone, and you can see we’ve got that teamwork here.”

In addition to H.E.A.L. STOP HEROIN and SOUL, representatives from the DEA, PreventEd, and MO Network were at the event to give resources. Medication disposal bags and Narcan were available for people who needed them.

Fitzwalter said people who haven’t experienced substance use disorder in their family can also benefit from becoming part of the efforts to combat it.

“We try to get people that haven’t experienced it so we can try and teach them to be proactive instead of reactive,” he said. “We don’t want people to be blindsided and all of a sudden find out their loved one is suffering substance use disorder.”

Lemonds’ support group meets weekly at Concordia Lutheran Church. There, they talk through the struggles of losing their family members and the remorse for not being able to bring them back, she said.

“I miss (Ben) every day and I will for the rest of my life,” Lemonds said.

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