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Linda Nuszen, Maryann Natale and Janet D'Agostino, parents who have lost children to opioid addiction, during an event dedicating a new garden at St. Charles Hospital May 18. Photo by Kyle Barr

They say it’s becoming impossible to walk through a crowd and not find at least one person who hasn’t been affected by the opioid crisis. On May 18 a group of more than 50 people, nearly all of whom have lost loved ones, or at least experienced the strain of a loved one having gone through the throws of addiction, gathered at St. Charles Hospital for the unveiling of a new “Remembrance and Reflection Garden” just outside the Infant Jesus Chapel on hospital grounds.

The idea started with Port Jefferson resident Marcia Saddlemire, whose daughter Nicole passed away as a result of opioid addiction in 2015. She said she didn’t want to leave the memory of her daughter as just an opioid addict.

“I was getting angry watching the news, when they say so many died from overdose in Suffolk County this year, I said dammit, she’s not a statistic, she’s a person, she has a name and a life,” Saddlemire said. “All the mothers agree with this, they don’t want to grow up to be addicts. This is not what they wanted from their lives, they had dreams, they had goals.”

Stones dedicated to families affected by opioid addiction in a new garden at St. Charles Hospital. Photo by Kyle Barr

Saddlemire said she didn’t have the connections or know-how to create such a project, so she managed to get in contact with three women — Janet D’Agostino, Maryann Natale and Linda Nuszen — all of whom belong to multiple anti-opioid organizations and support groups. They gathered together to plan and create the new garden.

“We want it to be public — we don’t want to hide it,” said Natale, whose son Anthony died of an overdose. “We want them to know it’s an epidemic. This garden also helps those families who are going through such time with an addict.”

St. Charles Hospital was chosen as the location for the garden because of its existing programs fighting opioid addiction, according to the mothers. The hospital has 40 beds that are allotted for chemical dependency rehabilitation, 10 for supervised detoxification for adults and four for detoxification of adolescents age 12 to 18. Jim O’Connor, the executive vice president of St. Charles Hospital, said administration expects to receive another 10 beds for detoxification services. He said he also expects to develop an outpatient center at the hospital for addicts who need ongoing, comprehensive care in the next several years.

“We are honored that these families have chosen St. Charles Hospital as the site for this very special garden, as St. Charles is committed to hosting hospital programs which combat Suffolk County’s current addiction crisis,” O’Connor said.

Stones dedicated to families who have lost loved ones to opioid addiction in a new garden at St. Charles Hospital. Photo by Kyle Barr

Nearly all work for the project was donated by local businesses. The garden includes stones engraved with the names of victims of opioid addiction and quotes from their families. Ron Dennison and his son Alan from Bohemia-based Long Island Water Jet donated their time to create a heart sign featured in the garden. The sign features large words like “forgiveness” and “understanding” along with small words like “pain” and “fear,” to show positive emotions overcoming the negative.

Dennison’s daughter, Sarah, went through the St. Charles rehab program when she became addicted to opioids. She is out of the program now, and she has a daughter named Serenity.

“When your kids are addicted, you deny it, you deny it, you deny it,” the elder Dennison said as he fought to speak through tears. “And then one day you wake up you say, ‘what is going on here.”

Nuszen and her family founded Look Up for Adam, a foundation dedicated to her son who died from an overdose in 2015. Her organization helps to raise awareness.

“So many people don’t know how to show up for our loved ones,” she said. “So many people don’t know how to be themselves, or how to be here for each other. So now that we can come here and have a place where we’re not isolated — so they come here and know they’re not alone, that there are people who care about them.”

Though the sun was shining, and the message was positive, most attendees would prefer to be just about anywhere else on a Saturday morning.

For the second year in a row, Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) has helped the family of one of her constituents who experienced unimaginable personal tragedy turn pain into a positive for the community. Last year, to honor the memory of Billy Reitzig, a 25-year-old Miller Place resident who died as a result of a heroin overdose in April 2016, Bonner and Reitzig’s parents, Bill and Sandy, created Hope Walk for Addiction, an event at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai in which participants came to walk, give and receive support for those struggling with addiction, either personally or someone in their family. On April 21, Bonner and the Reitzig’s were at it again, this time hosting a War on Addiction Rally at the Pennysaver Amphitheater in Farmingville.

“This year the Reitzigs wanted to do something a little bit different — they wanted to have a rally,” Bonner said.

Both she and Bill Reitzig likened the event to a double-edged sword — positive for the feelings of solidarity and support attendees undoubtedly walked away with, but never far from the grief and the wish a rally for hundreds of people to unite against addiction weren’t necessary.

“Looking at the people here we know that everybody’s been touched by this whether it be their child or a friend or a family member,” the councilwoman said. “When we were meeting monthly to help set this up, at every meeting at the end we would say ‘God willing we won’t have to be here next year.’”

The event had another, equally important stated purpose along with support for addicts yearning for recovery and families worried about loved ones. All proceeds raised through donations, raffle tickets and offerings from the dozens of vendors on hand were donated to benefit Hope House Ministries, a nonprofit based in Port Jefferson with other locations on the North Shore that supports people suffering from addiction.

“My son passed away April 22, 2016, and prior to that there weren’t some of these groups that are here today like FIST, Families in Support of Treatment, because while he was going through Hell, in all honesty, with addiction and struggling and trying to get better, we as a family needed support,” Reitzig said. “Some of those groups weren’t available then, and since he passed away I’ve met so many nice people. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s kind of like, ‘I wish I didn’t know you, and I wish I didn’t get to meet you today.’ But you know what, my wife and I decided not to bury our heads in the sand and to come out and try to make a difference with donations. We’re just trying to give back and, I don’t know, I think I get the strength from my son in order to be able to help and try to make a difference.”

Bonner said the shift from a more somber event in 2017 to a rally this year should signal a breaking down of the stigma of addiction and empower people suffering themselves or from watching a loved one struggle to reach out for support.

“I think I get the strength from my son in order to be able to help and try to make a difference.”

— Bill Reitzig

“If we can continue to chip away at that, I think more recovery and more help will evolve from that,” she said. “We all share the feeling, that shame and embarrassment is becoming less because so many more have been affected. So I don’t know if it’s a natural progression. Whatever the reason is for it, it can only help.”

Reitzig said he also hoped a byproduct of the rally would be for people to sign a petition asking New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to spearhead legislation that would mandate evidence-based substance abuse educational programs in every school statewide and urged people to question doctors when prescribed pain medication.

Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) shared a similar sentiment when asked what he hoped attendees would take away from the rally.

“We want to tell people there is hope, you can take back your life, you can take back control of your life,” he said.

The rally raised about $45,000 for Hope House Ministries, up from the walk in 2017 which yielded about $34,000, according to Bonner. About 1,000 people attended the Saturday morning into afternoon event. For more information about the Reitzig’s cause or to donate visit www.waronaddictionrally.com.

Town of Brookhaven residents will fill the Pennysaver Amphitheater at Bald Hill to declare war on addiction April 21.

Hosted by Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), Brookhaven Town and Hope House Ministries, an
organization with locations across the North Shore dedicated to providing support for those in need, including those suffering from addiction, the War on Addiction Rally will serve to both raise awareness and funds. All proceeds raised by the event will benefit Hope House Ministries to support its work in fighting addiction and assisting in the care of those trapped by drug and alcohol abuse.

The event is being dedicated in memory of Billy Reitzig, a Miller Place resident who died as a result of a heroin overdose in 2016 when he was 25 years old. The rally will feature speakers, self-help experts,
community leaders and local celebrities sharing personal experiences, as well as raffles and activities geared toward children, according to a press release for the event.

The program begins at 10:30 a.m. at the theater, located at 1 Ski Run Lane in Farmingville. It is free to register and attend, though donations to benefit Hope House Ministries will be accepted. For more information visit www.waronaddictionrally.com.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin. Flie photo by Alex Petroski

Even though it feels like Election Day 2016 was sometime last week, the 2018 midterms are right around the corner.

To that end, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) hosted a telephone town hall March 14 to give constituents the opportunity to ask questions and hear where he stands on hot-button issues in New York’s 1st
Congressional District. This was one of several telephone town halls Zeldin has hosted since he was re-elected in 2016, though many of his constituents have been rabidly calling for him to host in-person town halls for more than a year, in addition to the three-in-one day town halls he hosted in April 2017, on what some felt was short notice.

“While in D.C. these telephone town halls allow me to reach out to the greatest number of constituents at once, allowing me to listen to your concerns and answer your questions,” he said on the call. “Listening to your questions and insight is such an important part of my job.”

Zeldin fielded about 10 questions during the 60-minute call on a wide array of topics. Below are some of the highlights, with questions bolded and lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Michael: “I did vote for [President Donald] Trump (R)], but I was very disturbed when he said what he said as far as due process and our Second Amendment rights, taking guns away from people that may be perceived as not having any business having them. I wanted to be assured that you would do your part to remind our president that due process does not come second.”

“I totally agree with you, due process is incredibly important,” Zeldin said, though he offered some qualifiers that sounded as though there was at least some common ground between his position and what Trump said during a televised listening session with survivors of the February shooting in Parkland, Florida. Trump suggested that those who display signs they might be harmful to themselves or others should have guns seized immediately, prior to a crime being committed, due process be damned. He has since backed off from that sentiment.

“It’s important that we’re doing what we need to do, smart policy to keep people safe,” Zeldin said. “There were so many balls that were dropped in Parkland, at different levels of government … People who are
saying Nikolas Cruz shouldn’t have had access to a particular kind of firearm, I’ll say, a guy who shows — I don’t care if he’s 19 or 89 — anyone who is showing all of those threats and indicators, they should not have access to any firearm.”

Zeldin also reiterated his support for the Second Amendment and citizens’ right to bear arms. He also in response to a later question said he thought it was great that high school students locally and nationally are
educating themselves on issues and making their opinions known.

Nora: “In regard to the opioid epidemic, I realize that lots of funding keeps on being funneled toward this crisis, and I see that police are arresting more and more of the drug dealers. I’m not seeing in the hospital setting that the people themselves who are taking the drugs or addicted are getting the help they need. Are there any plans to build facilities for people to get the help they need before they die?”

Zeldin responded to Nora, who said she is a nurse at Stony Brook University Hospital, by saying in a discussion he was involved in with several generals discussing the future of foreign diplomacy, he relayed to them that opioid addiction is nearing the level of a national security threat. The congressman touted previously passed legislation, specifically the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016, an $8.3 billion plan to fight drug addiction in the United States, with a significant amount of funding for prevention and treatment, and added that the bill needed repeated funding annually.

He mentioned a need to improve the quality of treatment facilities or sober homes, as well as legislation that would help to prevent the practice of “doctor shopping,” or seeking prescriptions for pain medications to feed opioid addiction. However, he fairly quickly pivoted to border security.

“When we talk about border security or people entering our country, what often gets lost in that is this is also illegal substances as well,” he said.

Frank: “Nationally there needs to be some support of President Trump in stopping illegal immigration, and what I was concerned about locally is my understanding is that there are many areas on Long Island that support sanctuary status — it’s a blatant disregard for federal law and something needs to be done about this.”

“I’m with you,” Zeldin said. He went on to name a number of examples of illegal immigrants committing violent crimes in cities around the United States as evidence the practice of protecting illegal immigrants from federal prosecution simply for that reason needing to be ended. “The sanctuary city policies we see across the country are so wrong. The federal government is responsible for creating immigration law in this country, and where you have local politicians pandering for votes and refusing to assist … you’re putting our law enforcement officers at risk. I have colleagues that celebrate illegal immigration.”

The full recording of the town hall can be heard on Zeldin’s website, www.zeldin.house.gov.

Drug dealers are designing and manufacturing fentanyl-laced drugs to resemble name-brand prescriptions. Stock photo

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) took a firm stand against the spread of fentanyl earlier this month, proposing legislation to add 11 variations of the highly addictive and dangerous synthetic opioid drug to the state’s scheduled controlled substances list. If enacted, this law would help close a current loophole in New York that makes it easier for narcotics dealers to distribute deadly drugs and skirt felony charges by designing and manufacturing them to resemble name-brand prescriptions.

The governor pushed the proposal Feb. 5 as part of a 30-day state budget amendment, with the hopes of the budget passing the senate in April.

Fentanyl is between 50 and 100 times more potent than morphine. Stock photo

“These actions will give law enforcement the tools they need to combat this drug, holding the death dealers who peddle it accountable and helping ensure that our laws are able to keep pace with this evolving public health crisis,” Cuomo said. “Make no mistake: Fentanyl is potent, dangerous and its abuse is increasingly fueling the misery of the opioid epidemic.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is between 50 and 100 times more potent than morphine and even more so than heroin — the lethal dose of heroin is about 30 milligrams, while the lethal dose of fentanyl is 3mg. It is also not commonly reversed by Narcan, the lifesaving drug that combats heroin overdoses. Cuomo said the number of fentanyl-related deaths in the state increased by nearly 160 percent in 2016, a statistic that led him to evaluate what’s missing from the controlled substances list.

His push is resonating across Suffolk County.

“I applaud Governor Cuomo for taking this important step toward closing this dangerous loophole that shields drug dealers from justice and continues to tear our communities apart,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said in response to the governor’s statement. “I urge the state senate and assembly to include this proposal in their respective budget bills. We need to utilize every resource available to deter individuals who create and sell these deadly drugs.”

Over at the county correctional facility, Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr., who regularly visits school district across Suffolk to speak with students about the dangers of opioid use, also approved of Cuomo’s actions.

“These actions will give law enforcement the tools they need to combat this drug, holding the death dealers who peddle it accountable…”

— Andrew Cuomo

“I applaud [Cuomo] for proposing strong regulations on fentanyl analogs because it gives law enforcement another avenue to crack down on drug traffickers and dealers pushing these dangerous and lethal substances into our communities,” he said.

Tracey Farrell, a Rocky Point resident and the president of nonprofits North Shore Drug Awareness and On Kevin’s Wings, knows firsthand the devastation these opioids cause. Her son, Kevin, died of an overdose in 2012 and her daughter Breanna is currently three years in recovery.

Farrell said because there are so many different chemical makeups of fentanyl, “too often this ties the hands of our law enforcement” to enact stricter penalties.

“My son was one of 83 who passed in Suffolk County in 2012 when fentanyl wasn’t really on the radar, but five years later, that number is over 500 with a very large percentage of those deaths being caused by fentanyl,” she said. “We must take any and all steps possible to get the sale of this drug to impose the maximum sentences and potentially save lives.”

Sal Vetro, a pharmacist at Echo Pharmacy in Miller Place, said this would be a major step in the right direction toward saving lives.

“I think Cuomo’s on the right track,” Vetro said. “We’re trying to fight this epidemic and the people who need fentanyl should have fentanyl, but if it’s being used illegally, sold illegally, or causing damage illegally, those people should certainly be punished. We have to stop ignoring the problem, and this is a start.”

The Three Village school district will hire an additional guidance counselor at Ward Melville High School, above, as well as a psychologist to administer tests throughout the district. Photo by Greg Catalano

By Donna Newman

At a recent meeting of the Three Village Drug & Alcohol Awareness Program — a support group that seeks to educate all and assist parents and family members of teens and young adults battling substance abuse —  I spoke with a young mother of elementary-school-age children. She was there to learn about this growing danger that has taken so many lives in Suffolk County. She is afraid for her children. They are growing up in a society where drug overdose deaths have become routine. She wants to protect her children from becoming victims of substance abuse.

This mom has been on a crusade to make parents aware of the dangers, knowing that this is a Three Village problem and it will take community awareness and extensive effort to combat it. So she speaks to parents of young children wherever she finds them to encourage them to be part of the solution. She told me the majority response from parents is: “Not my kid. She’s an A student.” Or, “Not my kid, he’s an athlete.” Or simply, “My child would never get involved in that.”

I’m here to tell you that you need to take your head out of the sand.

The significant drug problem at Ward Melville High School when my sons were in attendance in the 1990s was not publicly acknowledged by the school district — or anyone else other than the parents whose children “got into trouble.” Mine did not. They were honor grads, heavily involved in extracurricular activities.

However, in a conversation with one of my sons, years after graduation, I learned he had used drugs with some regularity while in high school. It turned out I had been one of those clueless parents. But I was one of the lucky ones.

Lucky, because back then, when a teenager bought marijuana, it was just pot. It was not the cannabis of today, which may be laced with illicit and scary drugs by dealers seeking to hook kids on stronger stuff. Lucky, because he did not have a propensity, and his “recreational” use never rose to the level of addiction.

Full disclosure: As a college student in the 1960s I experimented with marijuana as well. My equally clueless mother discovered a small baggie of weed in my room. She trashed it, never saying a word to me. In that era, just knowing she knew was enough to get me to stop.

The school district has finally acknowledged the fact that addiction is a disease requiring treatment, not a moral lapse requiring punishment.

According to “School district welcomes new drug and alcohol counselor” in the  July 20 edition of The Village Times Herald, the district has hired a substance abuse counselor. Heather Reilly, certified social worker, will be tasked with rotating through the secondary schools one day each week (including the Three Village Academy alternative high school program), providing substance abuse counseling, educating faculty about warning signs and drug lingo, and creating educational curriculum for sixth-graders in collaboration with elementary health teachers. She will also be available to work directly with families.

While this is a laudable first step, it’s not nearly enough. Change will not happen without a concerted community effort. Parents need to accept the fact that this is a real problem affecting Three Villagers across the cultural and economic spectrum. Yes, it could even be your child.

Folks must come to grips with the fact that chemical dependency is a potentially fatal illness and that 90 percent of sufferers go untreated. They need to acknowledge that kids who are addicted to alcohol and/or opioid drugs are not “bad” kids. They are youngsters whose brains are not fully developed, who made bad choices that led to a tragic outcome. It’s time for all of us to learn all we can about prevention and to come together to end this plague.

There’s a lot you can do. For starters, attend the monthly meetings at the Bates House in Setauket. Dates and times are listed on Facebook on the Three Village Drug & Alcohol Awareness Parent Group page — along with other helpful information. Learn when and how to begin to talk to your child about the dangers of alcohol and drugs and your family’s rules concerning underage drinking and substance abuse. A good place to begin is at New York State’s online site www.talk2prevent.ny.gov.

The next meeting at the Bates House, located at 1 Bates Road in Setauket, will be held Sept. 24 at 7 p.m.

Donna Newman, a freelance writer, is a former editor of The Village Times Herald.

Graphic by TBR News Media.
Graphic by TBR News Media.

Commentators on the rising opioid crisis in the United States commonly say dealing with the problem requires a multi-pronged approach, and the Suffolk County Police Department agrees.

The department has expanded efforts to combat the many fronts of the opioid crisis, including prevention, treatment and enforcement.

Police Commissioner Tim Sini said in an interview that the opioid problem is the number one public safety and public health issue in Suffolk County.

“We have over 100 opioid-related overdoses every year for the past several years, and then when you consider the more than 500 Narcan saves on top of that, the tragic loss of life and the near tragic loss of life is just shocking,” he said at police headquarters in Yaphank.

It’s no secret the SCPD has their job cut out for them — in 2014 Suffolk County had the highest number of overdose deaths involving heroin, and was the leader in deaths where prescription opioids were a factor in the state, according to a report by the New York State Comptroller’s office from June.

In 2014 Suffolk County had the highest number of overdose deaths with heroin, and was the leader in deaths where prescription opioids were a factor in NY

Sini also highlighted how crime is so closely associated with an increase in drug activity.

“Addicts often resort to burglaries and larcenies, and sometimes they elevate to robberies,” he said. “And now we’re seeing our gangs getting involved in the heroin trade because there is a lot of money to be made and there are so many customers.”

The commissioner said the department is working as hard as it can to ensure it’s as inconvenient as possible to sell drugs in Suffolk County.

At the end of March, SCPD started a program that encourages residents to call 631-852-NARC, an anonymous hotline encouraging residents to call in with drug tips they have. If the tip leads to an arrest, the resident is entitled to a cash reward. This initiative works in conjunction with Crime Stoppers, a program that connects local police departments with the public and media to help find suspects and collect information that can lead to arrests.

“Since we rolled [the drug hotline] out at the end of March, we’ve received over 500 tips on that line, and many of those have resulted in investigations and search warrants,” Sini said. “We’ve seized kilogram quantities of narcotics as a result of this initiative, over a million dollars in drug money, dozens and dozens of weapons, and over 200 arrests under this initiative. It’s important because not only does it take drugs off the street but it sends the message that we’re not going to tolerate drug dealing in our communities.”

The police department has said open communication with the public is an important part of this fight, because the more communities speak up and help the department, the better work the police can do.

Sini said since he took over, there has been almost a 200 percent increase in the amount of search warrants executed, and many of these are due to tips from residents.

“[Search warrants] are very important because it disrupts drug operations before they become too significant,” Sini said. “It takes guns and drugs off the streets, and also strengthens the partnership between the police department and the community. It encourages people to be more informative.”

Relationships with federal law enforcement partners have also been re-established, Sini said, and five detectives now work with the Drug Enforcement Administration; four focus on the heroin trade and the fifth investigates doctors and pharmacists who have been reported to unlawfully dispense or prescribe pain medication.

The police department has also focused resources on treating drug addicts who are in the throes of addiction.

Inmates at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank have the option of receiving voluntary medical assistance while still in jail. The department offers inmates who are eligible for the program, meaning they don’t have any drugs currently in their system and have said they want to commit to getting clean, an injection of Vivitrol, a drug that works as an opioid antagonist, blocking the opioid receptors in the brain and preventing someone from getting high for 30 days.

“It gives you that mental clarity and stability to essentially not relapse, so you can stay in treatment,” Sini said. “It’s highly effective but most addicts don’t want to use it because once you take that shot, you know you can’t get high for thirty days. So it takes someone who is really committed to getting help.”

Sini said the program starts in jail, and they look for inmates who have essentially been incarcerated because they are addicted to drugs, with arrests due to burglaries, possession, and other drug-related crimes. Incarcerated individuals receive their first shot in jail, and then are set up with a treatment provider in their community to work with when they are released.

“This is a multifaceted problem that creates issues for families, schools, the police department, probation, courts, medical examiners, churches and more. And everyone has got to be at the table.”
— Tim Sini

Suffolk County officers are also dedicated to providing programs that help with prevention.

The Ugly Truth is a program meant to educate school districts and community groups on the dangers this growing problem poses for all different age groups in Suffolk County. There are many other programs in effect right now being taught throughout the county.

“If we can prevent someone from ever going down that road, that’s where you’ll get your biggest bang for your buck,” Sini said.

The commissioner said he is only interested in working with evidence-based programs, which are resources that have been studied by analysts to prove their effectiveness.

Certain police officers are also designated as school resource officers. They are assigned to specific districts to participate in awareness programs with the students.

Sini said despite all the resources the department provides, more needs to be done.

“The silver lining is, among the experts there is consensus,” Sini said. “We don’t sit there and debate if addiction is a disease or if the cops can solve this problem. We all get it; this is a multifaceted problem that creates issues for families, schools, the police department, probation, courts, medical examiners, churches and more. And everyone has got to be at the table.”

First responders saved three adults who overdosed together on Monday afternoon, using an anti-overdose medication that is administered through the nose.

According to the Suffolk County Police Department, 4th Precinct police officers Daniel Sable, David Vlacich and Vincent Liberato responded to a 911 call reporting multiple people had been found unconscious at a Lake Ronkonkoma home. When officers arrived at the Kirby Lane home at about 4:15 p.m., they found two women and a man unconscious in an upstairs bedroom.

The officers worked with Lake Ronkonkoma Fire Department rescue personnel to carry the trio out of the house, police said, and the LRFD members administered Narcan, a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

The three victims — a 39-year-old female, a 43-year-old female and a 46-year-old male — regained consciousness, police said. They were listed in stable condition at Stony Brook University Hospital.

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