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FIST forum addresses opiate epidemic

In hopes of shedding light on the growing opiate epidemic across southern Brooklyn and Staten Island, grassroots organization Families In Support of Treatment (FIST) hosted a forum at Our Lady of Angels on Thursday, October 24.

“We have an epidemic of kids dying in Bay Ridge and everyone is in denial about it. There’s a blind eye,” said concerned mother Kathy Khatari, who attended the forum representing Councilmember Vincent Gentile.

“It’s mostly Arab kids dealing and dying,” she went on, noting that a man who had just turned 20 had died from an overdose just weeks ago. “In order to get help, you have to want it.”

At the three-hour forum, dozens of organizations including Dynamic Youth Community Center (DYC), JNS Counseling Services and the Seafield Center were on hand giving families tools on how to recognize the signs of addiction and how to seek proper treatment.

“People are fed up with what is happening and are trying to get the help they need,” said Anthony Rizzuto, chair of FIST and a provider relations specialist at Seafield Center, who organized the evening. “FIST is about uniting families and people in recovery to have a voice and to have a say in their lives as to what they want done.”

Rizzuto said that FIST has been going around the tri-state area reaching out to families to address this nationwide problem. “We try to make a difference and heighten awareness,” he said.

Hilary Kunins, MD, assistant commissioner for alcohol and drug abuse prevention, care and treatment for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said that 9,000 New Yorkers have died from overdoses since 2000, which is an increase of more than 250 percent.

“These are mostly young people, mostly using opiates,” she said. “We are in the midst of a national epidemic.”

She said that heroin deaths are also increasing. After four years of reductions, the last two have seen a jump: 209 deaths in 2010 and more than 350 in 2012.

“We are worried and concerned that access to prescriptions has led to a greater addiction,” Kunins said.

The most powerful part of the evening is when those personally affected by addiction shared their stories.

Maria D. read a letter that she wrote to Governor Cuomo back in January, 2012, when her daughter nearly died from an overdose.

“There were eight deaths in Dyker Heights. Good kids in good schools coming from good families,” she said. “I’m angry, so angry. Hello? Does anyone care?”

She recalled when her 19-year-old daughter broke her arm during a ski trip. Her doctors prescribed painkillers, but they didn’t work because, as her mother learned at the time, she had previously become addicted to them. She had to be put on morphine.

“As she recovered, she lied, stole money and sold jewelry,” Maria said, noting that her daughter needed to keep up with her habit.

Today, her daughter is attending college and works as a dental assistant.

But Mary Connolly was not as lucky. She lost her son Lawrence at the age of 22.

“He struggled since he was 15,” she said, adding that after one night of partying, he never woke up.

“My family suffers from this disease. They live in a community and a society that says that this treatment is not for them,” Connolly explained. “He believed that he could not overdose on Xanax.

“To lose a child from this disease does not have to be. The message should have been carried to Larry, but I was the only one carrying it,” she went on. “All these years later, we celebrate holidays at the cemetery because the message wasn’t carried to them. I’m at OLA tonight because we can’t let any more angels in.”

State Senator Marty Golden added, “If I tell you the number of kids dying even today, [it’s] astronomical — kids 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20 years old in Dyker Heights, Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst. Middle class kids from middle class homes dying each month,” he said.    “We need solutions. I have been to too many wakes and funerals and I don’t want to go anymore.”

Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz, chair of the Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Committee, said that the Assembly has passed several bills to prevent the issuance of illegal prescriptions, but that more work needs to be done.

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