Examining the impact of opioid epidemic in NEPA

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EYEWITNESS NEWS (WBRE/WYOU) — The opioid crisis has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the nation, including right here in northeastern and central Pennsylvania.

Eyewitness News takes a deeper look into how the epidemic is affecting the lives of many in our area.

“I was smoking cigarettes by eight and nine, marijuana by 10, 11. By 14, I was an IV drug user,” Cathy Ryzner said. “’70s it was crank, ’80s it was coke and crack, ’90s I found the heroin.”

Ryzner struggled with substance abuse for decades.

“Laying on the bathroom floor, crying for God to help me. We’re good people. You meet people in recovery. We’re good people, but put that drug or drink in us, all bets are off,” Ryzner said.

She is one of the lucky ones still alive today.

“I think you expect the call. I think any family that has someone who is struggling with substance abuse expects the call, but it’s still a shock when it comes,” Carol Coolbaugh said.

Coolbaugh lost her son, Erik, to an overdose in 2009. He died at 29 years old, leaving behind three children. His mother says she wouldn’t wish that suffering on anyone. But, unfortunately, she isn’t the only parent experiencing this loss in our area.

“When we received that phone call, it just tore us apart,” Mary Ann Oliveri said.

Four years ago, Oliveri and her husband Dave Capitula had their biggest fear become a reality.

“We lost our daughter to an accidental overdose on May 29th, 2017. When the toxicology reports came back, it showed she had fentanyl in her system,” Oliveri said.

Their daughter, Sarah Gardner, lost her life after battling her addiction for years.

Illicitly manufactured fentanyl is becoming more and more common in northeastern and central Pennsylvania.

“We know fentanyl is much stronger than heroin and it’s also cheaper for the dealer. It packs much more of a punch unfortunately,” Wyoming Valley Alcohol and Drug Services CEO Jason Harlen said.

And COVID-19 only made matters worse.

“We’re seeing in the pandemic, many people aren’t accessing resources they need including emergency medical services because they’re fearful of what they will face in the pandemic if they go to the hospital or call an ambulance,” Drug and Alcohol Administrator for Wyoming and Luzerne Counties Ryan Hogan said.

If you’re struggling with an addiction, these people say this doesn’t have to be the end of your story. You aren’t alone, and there is help available.

“Recovery is hard. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. But, it’s the best thing you’ll ever do. I never thought I’d be where I am today. Never,” Ryzner said.

“Reach out. Don’t give up. Don’t ever ever give up because recovery is possible. You just have to reach out,” prevention education specialist Stefanie Wolownik said.

For those looking to take the first steps to recovery, help is available. To help find a drug and alcohol facility near you, visit sais.health.pa.gov.

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