Michigan group mobilizes against opioid addiction

Rachel Greco
Associated Press

Grand Ledge — Two days before Madelyne Lawry’s son Nash Kiebler died, he called her in tears.

“Mom, I can’t do this,” Kiebler told her.

Lawry stood in the back yard of her Grand Ledge home with the phone to her ear, urging her 33-year-old son to call his sponsor and go to a recovery meeting. She believed at the time that her son had been sober for at least nine months. Today, she said it’s likely he had already relapsed by the time he called her.

“I should have dropped the phone and went to him, because that was a cry for help,” Lawry told the Lansing State Journal.

But she didn’t. Kiebler had his own apartment and a steady job at a restaurant. Lawry thought he was winning his battle with addiction, that he would be fine.

Two days later, on Aug. 4, 2016, a friend found Kiebler on his living room floor. He had overdosed on heroin.

His death came 16 years after the Grand Ledge High School graduate was first prescribed Vicodin for chronic back pain. He was 17 then, and took the drug for more than a year at the advice of a family doctor.

Lawry said the medication, an opioid, led him to heroin and a “turbulent” spiral of arrests, job hopping, bankruptcy and addiction.

“This is not what I wanted for my life,” Nash once told her.

Opioid-related deaths have accounted for more than 75 percent of all drug-related deaths in Ingham and Eaton counties for at least the last three years. In 2016, that percentage rose to more than 85 percent in both counties, according to annual reports from Sparrow Health System’s Office of the Medical Examiner.

Lawry, local law enforcement and judicial leaders believe it will take community outreach and support to stem those numbers.

It’s the goal behind the newly-formed Eaton County Families Against Narcotics, the latest chapter of a state-wide organization dedicated to creating a “safe place” for families struggling with the addiction and a network committed to helping them.

On a Monday morning earlier this month, Lawry was sitting at her kitchen table talking about all she’s learned about opioid addiction since Kiebler’s death. She points to a framed picture of both of them together, taken when he was still in high school.

“I did not know what I know now,” she said,

Kiebler needed treatment and constant support, Lawry said. That’s what Families Against Narcotics provides. She helped start the chapter, which launched Nov. 2, and she will serve as the board’s executive treasurer.

Serving alongside her is Eaton County Undersheriff Jeff Cook. His deputies at the Eaton County Sheriff’s Office were the first in the Lansing region to carry and administer Narcan, a drug used to treat opioid overdoses. That includes heroin, along with prescription drugs such as Vicodin, Oxycontin, codeine and morphine.

Cook said deputies have been using the drug since 2015, but more needs to be done to address opioid addiction in the county.

“It’s a threat to lives in this community,” he said. “It’s wide spread, it’s diverse. People from a large variety of backgrounds are affected by it. We have to battle this from many fronts.”

Nine of the 13 drug-related deaths in Eaton County so far this year were opioid related, said Luke Vogelsburg, supervisor and chief investigator with Sparrow Forensic Pathology.

Cook and Eaton County District Court Judge Julie Reincke began researching what it would take to form a local chapter of Families Against Narcotics last year.

Reincke said opioid addiction is often the common theme tying together everything from home invasions to petty thefts. She estimates 90 percent of the criminal cases she presides over involve some form of addiction to drugs or alcohol.

“We need, as a society, to get to a point where treatment is as easy to get as heroin, and we’re not there. It’s sad,” she said.

At monthly Families Against Narcotics meetings families struggling with addiction are encouraged to network openly with one another.

Attendees share their stories. They’re connected with resources by the professionals who sit on the group’s board and attend meetings, and they hear from addiction specialists about how drugs affect the brain.

“What we do is ask the question, ‘What do you need to get help?’ ” said Phil Pavona, the driving force behind the Ingham County chapter’s formation in 2013.

Pavona’s son Eric, a graduate of Okemos High School and Michigan State University student, died in 2011 at age 25 of a drug overdose after using opioids for three years.

Lawry said she “dug in” to the effort to create Eaton County’s chapter.

Forty-five people attended the launch at Real Life Church in Charlotte, and among them were local families dealing with addiction, she said.

“We know that this is just beginning, that we have a huge battle to fight, but we’re doing it together,” Cook said.