Herriman mother warns others about the danger of fentanyl after losing her son
HERRIMAN, Utah — Fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths have risen dramatically through the pandemic. One Herriman mother who lost her son is now pleading with others to be aware of the danger.
For Lee-Ann Luke, time stands still.
“It’s been a year now and it feels to us like yesterday,” she said. “At 22 years old, you don’t plan on burying your son.”
Luke gathered with family at the grave of her son, Troy Luke, to remember him several times last week.
“I miss his hugs most of all because he was like Mr. Bear Hug,” she told two of her children, Ruth and Zane, as they kneeled at Troy’s headstone.
“Troy was very outgoing and he could make friends with anybody of any age,” his mother said. “He just made everybody feel like family, you know?”
Last February, Lee-Ann says Troy, who was living in St. George at the time, took what he thought was oxycodone.
“It’s just a little tiny blue pill, and it’s stamped M-30 on it,” she described.
Little did he know, that tiny pill was laced with fentanyl, an extremely potent synthetic opioid.
“He was having trouble breathing and he wasn’t really coherent,” Luke said.
By the time he got to the hospital, it was too late.
“[They] immediately tried to resuscitate him and they never could,” she said. “It was just was beyond our comprehension.”
Troy passed away on February 13, 2021.
Dr. Robert Mendenhall, a psychiatrist at Intermountain Dayspring Treatment and Recovery, says fentanyl is a thousand times stronger than oxycodone.
“Fentanyl is the most potent opioid that we know of,” he said. “Micrograms worth of fentanyl can be life threatening.”
He urges people to only take opioids prescribed by a physician.
“Just never take anything that you don’t know for sure where it came from,” he said. “Because everything right now is has a really big risk of being laced with something else.”
Utah’s Growing Fentanyl Crisis
“Since [Troy] passed away, the problem with fentanyl has just exacerbated,” Luke said.
Megan Broekemeier, Opioid Fatality Research Coordinator with the Utah Department of Health, confirmed the increase. In 2019 fentanyl was involved in only 11 percent of overdose deaths in Utah. By 2020, it rose to 23 percent, and from January to October 2021 alone, that number outpaced all of 2020 at 29 percent.
She said Utah has seen a 126% increase in the number of overall opioid-related overdose deaths from 2019 to 2020.
Broekemeier attributes the increase, in large part, to a change in the drug supply.
“Counterfeit oxycodone pills and other narcotics such as Percocet are adulterated with fentanyl and are more prevalent than ever. Other drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamine are also being laced with fentanyl and introduced to the drug supply in Utah and other western states. Unfortunately, many users don’t know this and ingest fentanyl unknowingly,” she said.
Mendenhall believes the fentanyl crisis is also an unfortunate byproduct of physicians tapering the number of opioids they prescribe patients.
“Often as we kind of lower the opioid prescribing, there tends to be more sort of illicit ways to get the drugs and so it’s one of those sort of unintended consequences,” he explained.
He says geography also likely plays a role.
“We’ve been kind of an epicenter of a lot of drug trades, because of the I-80 and the 15 that kind of come together,” he said.
Though it’s a problem growing at an ever-increasing rate, Luke reminds people there are faces behind the numbers.
“I went through my phone and found a picture of Troy and I sent it to the medical examiner,” Luke recalled. “And I said, ‘I want you to know who my son is. I don’t want him to be a tag on a body bag. I don’t want him to be another case file.’”
Naloxone Saves Lives
“Very often with overdoses, they’re preventable,” Mendenhall said. “Naloxone is a medication that is an opioid blocker that works very, very quickly.”
When taken promptly, Naloxone can prevent overdose deaths.
“They can give you that Naloxone while they’re waiting for the ambulance to come and it very literally saves lives,” Luke said.
“Paramedics, firemen, policemen all carry Narcan kits,” she said.
Since the passing of her son, she’s dedicated her life to passing out as many naloxone kits as possible. She believes everyone should be educated about its life-saving abilities and encourages people to take a free course on how to use naloxone. This course sponsored by the Salt Lake Community College and Utah Naloxone will send those who attend a free injectable naloxone rescue kit.
“Think of yourself as the average person. Have you ever had a pain pill in your house? You know, that’s what the Narcan kit does,” she said.
Mendenhall urges those who either are taking an opioid themselves or know of a loved one taking an opioid to pick up a naloxone kit at their local pharmacy. “Because very literally, it could save your life and it’s not hard to just carry around and have,” he said.
Looking Back and Seeking Change
Luke misses her engaging, intelligent, and loving son every day.
“It’s tough, you know, you think of all the things that you wanted for him. That’s what I think of most when we miss him is what could have been, what he could have had, what he could have done, who he could have affected,” she said. “It’s where his path should have started, not where it should have ended.”
Luke is also an advocate for educating people about Utah’s Good Samaritan Law which protects those who offer care at the scene of an emergency in good faith from being held liable for damages or penalties.
Mendenhall says though the data is not yet clear, he has seen many of his own patients need additional help through the pandemic.
“A lot of the people that I treat for addiction, [and] a lot of people that I treat for mental health issues, they’ve had a harder time over the last couple of years,” he said. “I’ve had a higher percentage of people that are unstable, a higher percentage of people that we’re needing to change medications for, [and] a higher number of people that are having relapses on their drugs.”
He urges those who are struggling to seek help the right way.
“Go to your doctor, talk to them, tell them about your pain, tell them about your symptoms, tell them you know, if it’s more of a drug issue, instead of a pain issue,” he said. “There’s a lot of medications, there’s a lot of therapies that are very effective to help really treat both drug addiction as well as pain that are much safer.”
Mendenhall urges people to reach out to Utah 211 or the Utah Crisis Line if they need help at 1-800-273-8255.
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