May 22, 2022

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By Clarissa Donnelly DeRoven

Early in the morning on July 28, 2017 Amber DelVechio’s phone rang. She missed the call, but it woke her up. She rolled out of bed, and began getting ready for her job as an executive assistant at a manufacturing company in Newton, in Catawba County. 

At 16, Madison Workman poses for a photo before going to prom. Credit: Amber DelVechio

Her phone buzzed again. It was the same number: “Are you Madison’s mom?” 

DelVechio typed back, “Yes. Why?” 

Call me back, the stranger responded. 

DelVechio, who has long blonde hair and a soft voice, had grown somewhat accustomed to these sorts of pre-dawn calls. Her 18-year-old daughter, Madison Workman, injured her ankle four years earlier and a doctor prescribed the teenager an opiate-containing painkiller. She’d struggled with substance use disorder since. 

When Workman was actively using drugs, she’d call her mom at odd hours. DelVechio tried to always answer, and she tried to treat the situation with softness when she could. At some point, the mother began to think about the 3 a.m. conversations — and her newly disrupted sleep schedule — as if she had a newborn again. In that scenario, she wouldn’t get angry for having been woken up. She’d roll out of bed, pick up her baby, and pat her on the back. She’d bring warmth and comfort. She’d hope that one day soon they’d both be able to sleep through the night.

DelVechio wrote back, “I’m getting up, I’m getting ready for work. Can I call you on my way to work?” 

The stranger responded, “No. Sorry. Emergency.” 

At that moment, the mother felt something shift. She picked up her phone and called the number. On the other end, a sobbing woman quickly answered, saying, “Somebody left your baby on my porch.”

A nationwide problem, worse in North Carolina

Since Workman died in 2017, more than 10,000 other North Carolinians have also died from drug overdoses, according to state data. Recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that over the last year, the crisis grew even worse. More than 100,000 people across the country died of overdoses between April 2020 and April 2021. Over that period, the nationwide overdose death rate rose 27 percent. 

In North Carolina, it grew by 37 percent

While the numbers are staggering, physicians who specialize in addiction medicine, researchers who study drug use and policy, and harm reduction outreach workers say the rise is disturbing, but not surprising. It’s likely the result of many factors, some of which have existed for a long time, overlaid by the nearly two-year-long pandemic. 

First and foremost, experts say, the proliferation of fentanyl is to blame.

“Fentanyl has poisoned our entire illicit drug supply. There is nothing on the street these days that doesn’t have fentanyl in it,” said Michelle Mathis, the executive director and co-founder of Olive Branch Ministry, a faith-based harm reduction organization that serves 10 counties in the  Piedmont foothills.  

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