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Voices of an epidemic Remembering lives lost to the East End's opioid crisis

BY JOE WERKMEISTER

A mother’s trembling voice rose above the sound of steady rain that had begun to fall at Good Ground Park in Hampton Bays.

She pointed to the small flames flickering on candles arranged in a circle on the amphitheater deck in front of her — 19 in total, representing each known opioid-related death in Southampton Town over the past year. The candles were displayed inside a larger ring of 400, one for every opioid-related death in Suffolk County.

He’s one of those candles,” she said of her son.

Fighting through tears, she began to share the story of her 28-year-old son, a victim of the widening opioid epidemic that has swept across the nation and onto the East End.

“We have to try to stand strong and help each other,” she said. “And just remember our loved ones are with us right now. They’re with us every minute.”

Each candle in the outer circle represented an opioid-related death in Suffolk County in the past year. The 19 candles in the middle represented those who died from Southampton Town and the large candle was for a woman from Hampton Bays who died of a heroin overdose. (Credit: Michael Heller)

At a candlelight vigil Saturday night sponsored by the Southampton Town Opioid Addiction Task Force, people affected by the opioid epidemic stood together for nearly 90 minutes, sharing stories of the loved ones they have lost. They spoke of their sons and daughters, husbands, cousins, granddaughters and friends. They shared the pain they endure, day after day, and the stigma that still looms. They spoke of the struggle to understand how their loved ones became statistics in a crisis that claimed more than 630,000 lives nationwide between 1999 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They expressed frustration with the pharmaceutical companies that fueled the crisis. They remembered the accomplishments of their loved ones, who weren’t defined solely by drug abuse. They vowed to keep fighting, to never give up, to never let the names of the deceased be forgotten.

And they spoke about hope.

“All I can say is keep fighting,” said former News 12 anchor Drew Scott, co-chairman of the addiction task force, who afterward described the night as cathartic. “Don’t give up. Stay together. Support one another and help all you can,” he said. “Talk to government officials, talk to the insurance people. We want more facilities, more treatment and we’re getting there.”

Mr. Scott, of Westhampton, held a framed photo of his granddaughter, Hallie Ray Ulrich, a Pierson High School graduate who died last year at 22. His granddaughter Mackenzie Jenkins, Hallie’s cousin, stood beside him. The girls were like sisters, Mr. Scott said.

Former News 12 anchor Drew Scott shares the story of his granddaughter, Hallie Rae. (Credit: Michael Heller)

“Hearing everyone’s stories, it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” said Mackenzie, 17. “It’s a disease.”

Mr. Scott asked the crowd of about 200 people how many have been touched directly by the loss of a loved one. Dozens of hands shot up.

“My heart goes out to you,” he said.

Danielle Alberti, 23, of Hampton Bays shared an expression she’d heard that describes two deaths. The first is when someone leaves the world. The second is when their name is said for the final time.

Her older sister, Melanie Alberti, died at the age of 21.

“Don’t stop saying your loved ones’ names,” she said. “Her name was Melanie Lynne Alberti. She was born on Oct. 27, 1992, and she died Oct. 19, 2014.”

Alfredo Merat, a musician living in Springs, remembered a close friend, also a musician, who was represented among the 19 candles. Robert Fox of Cutchogue remembered his son Kyle, who died last September at 34 after taking OxyContin that had been laced with fentanyl. Kathleen McCabe of Westhampton Beach described her own battle with addiction and how her husband, Paul, died in 2008.

Lance Gumbs, a member of the Shinnecock Nation tribal council, described the call he received last September saying his son NaKea Lance Gumbs-Perry had died at 36. He was told there was fentanyl mixed with marijuana in his son’s system. Other members of the Shinnecock Nation have died as well, he said.

“This has no community boundary,” he said, his voice rising in anger. “Whether it’s North Sea, Hampton Bays, Riverhead, Shinnecock Reservation, it doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t make a difference how much money you have, whether you’re rich, poor. It has no eyes, it doesn’t see. All it is is a life-consuming entity that is man-made. As such, it is something we can fight.”

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, also a task force co-chairman, pointed out the one large center candle that was surrounded by 19 others, saying it represented a young woman from Hampton Bays who died of a heroin overdose.

The vigil speakers shared stories of their sons, daughters, granddaughters, husbands, cousins and friends.

“This is a crisis that is affecting our entire community and our region,” he said. “Standing together, we can make a difference.”

Many speakers expressed a desire to bring the crisis out of the shadows.

Tell everybody you know,” Mr. Scott said. “Fight this epidemic. Talk about it. Don’t sweep it under the rug.”

As the daylight faded, a candle someone held would occasionally die out. A moment later, someone standing nearby would quickly use their own candle to reignite it.

Even as the rain picked up, the candles in the circle remained largely lit, a symbol of the group’s resolve to never give up.

Robert Fox, 67, Cutchogue

“None of us expected to be here. And the stories are so similar. My anger is with the pharmaceuticals because they’ve known for many, many years what they were doing. As we stand here in the rain, I’m sure some of the CEOs of these pharmaceutical companies are in one of their six or seven or eight estates and counting their billions. This is what’s left over. The sadness and grief. I’m still angry. I guess that’s a stage you go through. In my mind, [my son Kyle] was irreplaceable.”

Erick Saldivar, 23, Southampton

“One of my best friends overdosed, and another one of my best friends just celebrated six months clean, and I did it all for her. My friend died in 2011 and I didn’t know until about two years later how much it affected me. My other best friend chose heroin over me, and that really hurt. So I decided to become a counselor to help her. She told me she would have relapsed already if it weren’t for me, and that really means a lot."

Danielle Alberti, 23, Hampton Bays

“My sister suffered from mental illness and substance abuse for a long, long time. The day she passed away, she overdosed and, since then, I’ve lived my live with extra-special meaning. She was 21 when she died. She was my older sister, and there were so many things she didn’t get a chance to do that I would like to do for her.”

Drew Scott, 70, Westhampton

“What I want to do now is tell [Hallie Ray Ulrich’s] story to so many others and get people to realize this is an illness. And the illness can be cured. It’s like cancer, heart disease or even diabetes. It doesn’t go away in seven days or 28 days. The insurance companies have to step up. We need more facilities to take care of the young people who are in this current epidemic. I really believe the numbers are terribly under-reported. We think 400 died in Suffolk this past year and 19 in the Town of Southampton. I think those numbers are very, very underreported.

Jessica Wild, 31, Deer Park

To support my friends — that’s why I’m here. And just to get an eye-opening. Because I only have 42 days clean. And I’m so quick to always go back to that lifestyle. And it’s not good. ... I need a wake-up call, I really do. Because I’m going to die — I don’t want to die. And that’s the reality of addiction: You’re gonna die.”

Karl Hanyo, 53, East Quogue

“I’m here to help support this drug task force to help stop the stigma that’s behind drug users. It’s not the creepy guy in an alley. It’s people’s sons, daughters, husbands … there’s no bounds to it. It’s not talked about, and it needs to be. It needs to be brought out. Kids need to be educated on it.”

Kathleen McCabe, 58, Hampton Bays

“I am a widow from an opioid overdose. My husband’s name is Paul Gioia. We started using drugs, and it went from one Vicodin … when all was done and said, he was taking 30, 40 a day. And other drugs. He was gone from me a year before he actually overdosed. He was not the same man I married, and toward the end I intuitively knew there was no going back from this. He died Feb. 29, 2008. For about two or three years, it felt like my heart was constricted. It physically hurt and I couldn’t catch my breath. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done to decide to live and get sober and stay sober. I joined Narcotics Anonymous, and I did what I had to do.”

Marion Locicero, 49, Riverhead

“My boyfriend died. Taylor was his niece. We were together seven years, but it took its toll. He fought it like everyone else. He was in and out of rehab. He was trying, he was really trying. He was an awesome human being. He was an artist.”

Debbie Wittich, 55, Westhampton Beach

“I want my son [Henry] to be remembered. He helped a lot of people when he was clean. He passed away last summer, June 28. I go to counseling along with my youngest daughter. I came here to remember him and I asked all his friends to come and stand up with me, because they are all clean and sober recovering addicts. The other part of me didn’t want to come, because I feel like I don’t have any answers, and I feel like I didn’t do anything right or he would be here. All day, I didn’t want to come, because I didn’t want to walk through the pain, but I’m afraid I’m going to forget one little thing about him — and I didn’t want to forget any of it, because he was a brilliant, great kid.”

Sara Fox, 30, Brooklyn

“My dad and I came for my brother, Kyle Fox, who died Sept. 6. I was super close to my brother. We lived together as adults. We lived together this past spring. He was literally my best friend. He was one of a kind, the nicest guy you’d ever meet. You never think it is going to happen to your family. We come from a middle-class home, we’re educated, and then it happens. I think he thought he was invincible … You wonder what more you could have done.”

Robert Chaloner, 60, chief administrative officer, Stony Brook Southampton Hospital

“I think this is probably one of the most important public health crises we are facing right now. The number of lives that have been touched by the opioid epidemic is staggering, quite frankly. We see a tremendous number of people in our communities affected by it. ... I think it’s important that all the major institutions, including the hospital, participate and do everything we can to mobilize our resources to fight this.”

Heather Stefanidis, 43, Manorville with Taylor Stefanidis, 23, Brooklyn; Olivia Gorwitz, 11, Bayport

“Just to let everybody know that our loved ones, that we still think about them and we miss them. And to bring awareness of how lethal fentanyl is and what it’s doing to young men, really. I had no idea there were so many. People look at addicts as, like, just lower class. Not anymore. It’s not like that anymore. And I think that they need to treat them with respect. I think that’s one of the main problems that doesn’t let them recover — because they feel so below everyone else, because they get treated that way.”

Wayne T. Duncan, 60, Sag Harbor and the Shinnecock Indian Reservation

“I’m a Cherokee Indian. Put that down — that’s important. I’m the drum keeper of the Young Blood Drum Group. What brought me here tonight is, my nephew died from opioid poisoning, fentanyl. That was Lance’s son.“We’ve been in this fight, man. … I never drank, never smoked, never took any drugs, and I’m 60. I’ve been fighting my whole life. I’m a straight-up warrior about trying to save young people, old people, just trying to bring people back to the real light. This is our community, the earth. No BS-ing around. I’m a front-line warrior when it comes to drug addiction, alcohol abuse, just addiction in general. My son had issues in high school. He was an alcoholic. He’s totally sober now. He’s actually getting his doctorate in social work. That’s why I’m here.”

Don Williams Jr., 59, Sachem and the Shinnecock Indian Nation

“I fought this addiction for years. I’m a disabled veteran. I lost my leg in the Marine Corps. And they just give you the pills. They were giving me 120 pills a month, and I got addicted and couldn’t get off them. It was a nightmare. There was a time when I didn’t want to keep going anymore, because it was horrible. Only someone who has been through it can know it. People who haven’t been through it don’t understand the addiction and how powerful it was. I was one of the lucky ones. I’ve been off it now for four years.”

Alfredo Merat, 58, Springs

“I’m here because I’m an addict in recovery myself. I’ve been working with many youngsters who are coming into Narcotics Anonymous and help them and help myself understand and learn a new way to live without using any kind of substances. I mean any kind of substances—not just drugs, but anything that has to do with my kind of compulsive attitude, obsession, with so many things. It can start with anything. Something happens, and you fall into something that can be so deadly. “I paid tribute to a loved one, a musician who worked with me for the last 15 years, who passed in August from this deadly disease, and children of friends who have passed as well.”

East End News Project

Three East End news organizations — the Times Review Media Group newspapers, the Press News Group and The Sag Harbor Express — have joined together with Stony Brook University’s journalism program in a unique collaboration called the East End News Project, which will focus on the opioid epidemic across the region.

Together, we will jointly publish stories about the extent of the crisis on eastern Long Island, the nature of opioid addiction and the roots of the crisis, how it has impacted people and their families, along with its impact on town and village police departments and first responders who are on the front lines in this crisis.

Our goal is to tell stories, and to have people affected by this crisis relate to the public as a whole how opioid addiction has changed their lives forever. In so doing, maybe lives can be saved with our effort.

If you can help by telling your story, please contact us at EENPopioids@gmail.com.

REPORTING AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY:

Times Review Media Group: Kelly Zegers, Tim Gannon, Nicole Smith, Rachel Siford, Krysten Massa, Joe Werkmeister and Steve Wick

Press News Group: Greg Wehner, Dana Shaw and Joseph Shaw

Sag Harbor Express: Stephen Kotz, Christine Sampson and Michael Heller

Stony Brook University: Cosette Nunez and Mike Adams

Credits:

Michael Heller

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