By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli
JT was the middle son from a wonderful family in our community. He was a senior in the philosophy program at Stony Brook University. This summer he was studying diligently for his LSATs because he was hoping to go to law school next fall. He was bright, handsome, funny, and very compassionate and loving. His family and friends loved him beyond words.
On a Wednesday in mid-August, JT overdosed on heroin. He had been battling heroin since he was 16 years old. His family did everything humanly possible to support his recovery. He had long stretches of excellent recovery, but this drug is so infectious and debilitating. It was hard and challenging almost every day.
On the Saturday after his death, I painfully presided at his funeral in a local North Shore Catholic Church. More than 600 people gathered to honor and celebrate JT’s life and show support for his devastated family. Most who were present were his peers — young people. His short life was senselessly lost because of a destructive choice with so much potential taken away from him in an instant.
Shortly after JT’s body was committed to the earth, a young man who was at his funeral overdosed on heroin. Thanks to the quick response of a friend who had Narcan with him, he lived!
After his release from a local hospital, the young man was encouraged to go back to a rehab center for extended treatment. His insurance made it very difficult. Finally, a rehab was willing to admit him, with the hopes of keeping him for 28 days, but only kept him for six days because that’s all his insurance would pay for.
This young man, at 24, is a chronic heroin user. He needs long-term residential care. The actions of both the rehab that released him because he could not pay and the insurance company who denied payment are equally unconscionable. Their decision-making is scandalous. If this 24-year-old dies, they should be held accountable for their social indifference.
Pope Francis is challenging people around the world to take care of their brothers and sisters, especially the poorest of the poor. We are among the richest country in the world and treat the most vulnerable among us like lepers.
It is very troubling that no one running for public office has the heroin epidemic on their political agenda. What will it take for those who lead us to recognize the senseless loss of young life around us because of destructive decision-making? When are the people in power going to allocate enough funds to increase long-term treatment beds for everyone — not just the rich and the overly insured?
When is the criminal justice system going to recognize that building bigger jails to house more and more young people that suffer from addiction is not the way to respond or ameliorate our epidemic drug problem?
How many more young people have to lose their lives because of this insidious epidemic before those who lead us take their heads out of the sand and do something courageous that will make a difference and protect the quality of life around all of us?
Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.