CHAMPAIGN — It will be five years, June 26, since an overdose of synthetic opioids claimed the life of Ellen Mennenga’s son, Robb.
For her, his death remains just as much a murder as the death of young people killed by violence in the streets, even if not everyone sees it that way, she said.
“Sometimes when I tell people he was murdered, they say, ‘he was a drug user, so what are you waiting for,'” Mennenga said.
Robb Mennenga, a former local lawyer and heroin user, died in 2017 from poisoning with the synthetic opioid acrylfentanyl, a fentanyl derivative he may have unknowingly used thinking that he was taking heroin.
Since her death, Mennenga and her husband, Lowell, of Champaign have maintained a Facebook page called “Robb’s Odyssey” to share information about fentanyl and its dangers, and they post anything they can find, she said. declared.
“I think there’s more awareness,” Ellen Mennenga said. “But I also think there’s a lot more fentanyl.”
When used legally, fentanyl is a prescription opioid pain reliever commonly used in anesthesia.
Used illegally, sometimes unknowingly when mixed with other street drugs, it becomes a stealth killer.
The Families Against Fentanyl organization says fentanyl poisoning has become responsible for 64% of drug-related deaths in the US – and was the leading cause of death among adults aged 18-45 in 2020 , surpassing suicides, car accidents and deaths from COVID-19 at this age. group.
Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup said fentanyl or fentanyl derivatives were involved in 32 of the county’s roughly 74 overdose deaths last year, with toxicology reports not yet available for 12 of the death.
Still under investigation in Champaign, the suspected overdose deaths of three men aged between 27 and 30 were all found dead last Christmas morning in the same house on O’Connor Court, Champaign.
On Christmas Eve, a 29-year-old man was found dead in an Urbana hotel, possibly from a drug overdose. He had previously been approved for a drug court self-help program and died just days before his first scheduled court appearance.
There were actually several drug overdoses in the community, not all fatal, over the Christmas weekend, according to Champaign Police Sgt. John Lieb, head of the Champaign County Street Crime Task Force.
Seven years ago, he recalls, heroin was “clearly big, but we weren’t seeing a lot of fentanyl.”
These days, Lieb said, “it seems like fentanyl is getting more and more prevalent. We had controlled buys when we thought we were buying 100% heroin and it was half fentanyl.
Northrup said the use of fentanyl has increased so much that it has actually become rare not to find it in toxicology reports for overdose deaths.
“If we see heroin, it’s probably fentanyl mixed in there,” he said.
Because dealers often cut drugs with fentanyl – to save money and/or make what they’re selling more potent – drug buyers often don’t know what they’re getting.
On the other hand, Northrup and others say news of a drug overdose death tends to send more buyers to the dealer who sold the drug to the deceased – in the belief that they will get something more powerful.
“They think they can handle it,” Northrup said.
“It’s not a drug you mess with”
Fentanyl is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine and up to 50 times more potent than heroin, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Agency. Two milligrams of fentanyl is enough to kill most people.
To get an idea of how small 2 milligrams of fentanyl or a fentanyl derivative “would easily fit on the head of a pin,” said Dr. Michael Smith, medical director for Regional Emergency Medical Services. of Carl.
“The amount of this that can kill you is tiny,” he said.
Heather Rumple, a drug court specialist with the Champaign County Probation Service, conducts random testing of drug court participants and those on probation.
Some people will deliberately use fentanyl because they can’t get heroin, she said, but she’s also witnessed the shock people feel when they’re told their drug test has failed. detected fentanyl.
“People will say, ‘I smoked weed or I took cocaine, but I didn’t take fentanyl,'” she said.
“Most people will tell you it’s not a drug you play with, (that) I would never take this drug, it could kill me,” she said.
According to toxicology reports Vermilion County Coroner Jane McFadden has so far for 2,021 deaths, there were 25 drug overdose deaths in that county last year, 16 of them involving the use of fentanyl alone or in combination with other drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
Dealers are cutting their drugs with fentanyl because it’s cheap and easier to get your hands on, McFadden said.
The people most vulnerable to overdose deaths are people straight out of rehab who relapse and think their bodies can handle the same amount of drugs they were taking before, she said, “and they can’t stand it.”
Having Narcan (naloxone) – a readily available treatment for overdoses of fentanyl and other opioids – unfortunately will not help someone who uses drugs alone or with a group or non-using friends and family members drugs aren’t there, McFadden said.
“Not everyone can be on drugs and expect someone to administer Narcan,” she said.
Fentanyl is so potent that it doesn’t take much to overdose, McFadden said.
Sometimes it takes multiple doses of Narcan to bring someone back, she says, “and it doesn’t always work.”
And here’s something McFadden said she often hears about the reaction of some people who have been rescued by Narcan: They get angry because they have headaches, “and you stole their high”.
“Safe to say fentanyl is here to stay”
Drug overdoses represent less than 1% of emergency room volumes at OSF HealthCare hospitals in Urbana and Danville, according to OSF’s EMS medical director for that region, Dr. Kurt Bloomstrand.
But while the overall percentage is relatively small, he and Smith have noticed cases of overdose sometimes in spurts likely related to the same bad batches or batches containing more fentanyl.
Most people who overdose on opioids and have received treatment with Narcan — by a family member, friend or first responder — tend to survive, Bloomstrand said.
“What we’re seeing is more and more lay people have Narcan on hand and have used it on someone who’s overdosed,” he said.
Narcan helps when someone overdosing gets it pretty quickly, Smith said, but, like McFadden, he knows it often doesn’t help an addict who overdoses alone and out of sight of others, or drug addicts found by people who are too afraid to call for help thinking that they or the drug user will be in trouble.
“A lot of these people are dying,” he said.
Both Smith and Bloomstrand have also observed an impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on accidental overdoses over the past two years.
After the loss of a job or a loved one or other trauma, Smith said, some people will turn to drugs.
Legitimately prescribed for needed pain relief, opioids can be taken safely for short periods of less than two weeks, and some people with chronic pain, such as cancer patients, can safely take low doses for long periods of time. long periods, Smith said.
It’s when people keep using these drugs because they like the effects, they build a tolerance and they crave more of them, that the problems start, he said.
If there’s one thing he and Bloomstrand want everyone to know, it’s that Narcan is available with training on how to administer it through the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and sold in over-the-counter in pharmacies. They encourage family members and friends of drug addicts to have it on hand.
“Having a dose of this can immediately save lives,” Smith said.
He also points out that treatment programs are available and can help.
Five years ago, Carle prioritized addiction treatment as a need, and patients who end up in Carle’s emergency department are referred to Carle’s addiction recovery program, Smith said.
His solution: refer people to help.
“It’s safe to say that fentanyl is here to stay and will make up an increasing percentage of what people buy on the street,” Smith said.