Drop in heroin deaths give families hope for addiction treatment and recovery

September 4, 2014

Candles at the 2014 Outside In memorial for overdose victim

More than 50 people gathered at Outside In Sept. 3rd to honor friends and family members who died of a drug overdose. Some people sat alone in silence, wiping tears from their eyes. Others leaned on friends for support, holding hands. Haven Wheelock, who runs Outside In’s syringe exchange program, opened the memorial.

“If I cry throughout this, bear with me,” she said. Having worked for Outside In for eight years, Wheelock has dedicated her career to help those struggling with drug addictions. “It’s something that’s very, very dear to me.”

The gathering marks International Overdose Awareness Day, established 13 years ago to raise awareness around overdose and reduce the stigma associated with drug-related death. This was the fourth memorial Outside In has held.

Amid the remembering, people said they were grateful for recent expanded use of Naloxone,  a generic, low-cost prescription drug that can immediately reverse a person's opiate overdose. In 2013, after extensive work by retired Health Officer Dr. Gary Oxman, Health Department staff and others, the Oregon Legislature authorized lay people to administer the antidote. Since then, health department analysts said heroin deaths have dropped 29 percent in Multnomah County.

“I knew we could be doing more,” Wheelock said through tears. Wheelock described the legislation as giving the drug-using community the power to stand up for each other and keep each other alive. When she went on to talk about the lives that had been saved and immediately groups of people broke out in applause.

Dr. Oxman said that since the law changed, 25 fewer lives were lost to heroin in the past 12 months.

"That’s 25 more people alive and walking the streets,” Dr. Oxman said. “We need to be proud as a community for that.”

Friends and family members spoke about their experiences losing someone to opiate overdose. One mother spoke of her two sons who were addicted to heroin, and how that addiction took one of their lives.

“Drugs and overdose don’t discriminate,” she said. Her other son has been clean for one year now. She urged everyone to become educated about the signs of opiate overdose and how to take the correct course of action to save lives. “We can’t change the past, but we can certainly change to future.”

Workers at Outside In then read a list of names in remembrance of those who were not saved in the past year as everyone held lit candles. The candles were then set in the ground after the names were read, flames flickering in the wind.
Wheelock closed the ceremony with parting words of comfort and hope.

“We’re in this together.”