Caeli Donaldson had what she refers to as a beautiful childhood.
It wasn’t until she was about 14 that she began to experiment with alcohol. She quickly moved on to other drugs, and, by the time she was 17, she had tried heroin.
At that point, there was no turning back.
As much as she loved her parents, she would lie to them if it meant feeding her addiction. She would steal from her younger brother. The person Caeli was while addicted to heroin was completely the opposite of what she was prior to her addiction. She knew the risk of using and was prepared, more than once, that it may be her last time. She still couldn’t stop.
Similar stories play out every day in families across the country. The opioid epidemic is a public health emergency. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 116 people died every day in 2016 from opioid-related drug overdoses. Another 170,000 used heroin for the first time.
Opioid addiction doesn’t just affect the user. Through coverage of the opioid crisis over the past five years, WITF has learned that the ripple effect from opioid addiction touches parents, first responders, teachers and children.
Vickie Glatfelter lost her son, Bob, to a fentanyl overdose in April 2014. She is now among the growing number of grandparents raising grandchildren. Glatfelter shared her story on “HealthSmart: Drugs and Young People” in 2015. She, like so many others that have been impacted, feel that sharing is the only way to increase knowledge and reduce stigma within our communities.
After first telling her story in 2015, Caeli Donaldson shared her continuing journey with opioid addiction in 2017 on “HealthSmart: The Opioid Epidemic.” Caeli allowed WITF to come with her on her daily trip to the methadone clinic. She says methadone, although controversial, is her path to a healthy life.
Stacy Zeigler knows that controversy well. In 2018, WITF introduced listeners to Zeigler in a “Transforming Health” radio feature that shows the stigma former heroin users face even as they attempt to stay clean. Like many people, Zeigler’s drug addiction began when a doctor prescribed her an opioid for pain. When she couldn’t get pills, she made the jump to heroin. As her addiction spiraled out of control, Zeigler lost her job, custody of her children, and almost lost her life to an overdose. She wanted to get clean, and, when she enrolled in a medication-assisted-treatment program, she got off heroin and never relapsed. Zeigler chose to share her story to fight stigma around these treatments, which rely on regulated opioids like methadone and buprenorphine, as well as regular counseling sessions.
First responders are on the front line of the opioid epidemic and have witnessed the devastation firsthand. Pennsylvania invested $5 million to arm first responders with naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug. That money provided police, EMTs and other first responders with more than 60,000 naloxone kits.
In 2018, “HealthSmart: Front Line of the Opioid Crisis” introduced viewers to Joseph Stevens, the chief of York Regional Emergency Medical Services. Stevens recalled finding a parent who had overdosed in a car with their 2-year old in the backseat. Stevens expressed his unwavering desire to save lives with naloxone, but also his frustration with saving the same lives multiple times.
Schools and teachers have also been impacted by the opioid epidemic. In homes where opioid abuse is present, school may be the only place that is free from chaos for a child. But, just because you remove a child from that environment during the day doesn’t mean they can escape it mentally.
In 2018, WITF introduced viewers to Eric Schlosser, the guidance counselor for four schools in the York City School District. He is the only guidance counselor for roughly 2,500 students. He says many of those students deal with a lot of stress at home and, instead of worrying about their education, they worry about parents at home abusing opioids.
In fact, out of all of those affected by the opioid epidemic, it may be children who are impacted the most.
In 2018, WITF introduced listeners to 12-year-old Jarryn Myers, who talks about losing his father to a heroin overdose—and helping police to identify the man who sold his father the fatal dose. Myers also testified in court to help prosecute the drug seller. The man was charged with drug delivery resulting in death, a charge that district attorneys are using to stanch the flow of heroin in communities. Critics say the strategy doesn’t work and unfairly targets minorities. However, for some who have lost loved ones to addiction, the charge is one way to get justice and closure.
Isabella Nye, was born addicted to opioids. She spent weeks in the NICU with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) before she could leave the hospital with her mother, Lisa. Isabella is among the growing number of babies born with NAS today. In fact, it’s estimated that a baby is born every 25 minutes suffering from opioid withdrawal. Lisa used heroin until she found out she was pregnant with Isabella and then she began a methadone maintenance program, which she continues today. Lisa chose to share her story because she knows that there are other pregnant women out there afraid to come forward with their addiction.
Over the past five years, countless community members have shared their struggles with opioid addiction through WITF. The faces, ages, genders, races and income levels of these people have all been different, but they all shared a desire to tell their stories to help reduce the stigma tied to this disease and to change the path for someone else.
WITF features a week of special programming the week of Sept. 24 on WITF TV. The week will include the WITF Original Production, “HealthSmart,” with episodes in prime time focusing on the opioid epidemic. Five episodes will air across the week including a new episode at 9 p.m. on Sept. 26 when “HealthSmart” takes a look at the children impacted by the opioid epidemic. Thursday night also includes a statewide broadcast. “Battling Opioids: A Project of Pennsylvania Public Media Part 1” is a collaborative effort among all the PBS stations across Pennsylvania. This 90-minute program, which airs Sept. 27 at 8 p.m., will focus on stigma, prevention and treatment.
Keira McGuire is the producer and host of “HealthSmart.”
Brett Sholtis is WITF’s “Transforming Health” reporter.
WITF is a community publisher for TheBurg.