In her crusade for reforms to help curb the opioid crisis, Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay is seeking help from families on the front lines of the epidemic.
McKinlay wants parents, siblings and friends who have lost loved ones to accidental heroin-related overdoses to share their personal stories with her in an email. She also wants to host a meeting early next year with families affected by addiction to hear their suggestions for reform.
“I think the families who’ve been affected by this are probably best able to tell us where the breaks in the system are, and hopefully their personal experiences can help us fix this,” she said.
The Palm Beach County Heroin Task Force of first-responders and treatment providers on Friday suggested a similar initiative, to host community forums with families who’ve lost loved ones to addiction.
“I am assembling a file of personal testimony from families. I would love for people to email them to me,” McKinlay said.
McKinlay wants to receive comments only by email — MMcKinlay@pbcgov.org — and not through phone calls.
She said the emails can be similar to the individual short stories, published in November by The Palm Beach Post in an online package and in a 12-page special section. Heroin: Killer of a generation focused on the 216 people who died from heroin-related overdoses in Palm Beach County in 2015.
The section also exposed how the county has focused few resources on the opioid epidemic and that addicts in Palm Beach County and throughout Florida have few options for care, beyond a core of dedicated treatment providers and volunteers
“If we humanize the stories and the issues, people will be more inclined to assist in reform efforts,’’ she said. “It’s going to help me produce my action plan.’’
McKinlay, who asked county officials Nov. 22 to report back with recommendations for reforms, said she pushed the Florida Association of Counties in Orlando last week to include the issue among its federal priorities.
“People at the conference talked about the (Post special section),” she said. “County commissioners and county attorneys from all over the state saw it and talked about it.”
McKinlay first started asking people to send emails about their addiction struggles on her Facebook page after the suspected overdose death of her chief aide’s daughter on Nov. 18. Over the next 10 days, she received about a dozen emails and phone calls.
One was from Christina Fiscina, a West Palm Beach woman who wrote about her 26-year-old fiance, Jesse Aaron Rathmann, dying Nov. 1 of a suspected overdose. The couple has two boys, ages 3 years and 18 months.
“If (McKinlay) could possibly share Jesse’s story, I want him to be known and remembered for the wonderful father he was, not for that horrible drugs that took his life and caused him so much pain,’’ Fiscina said in an interview.
“It has gotten so bad here I almost feel the need to leave West Palm Beach and raise these boys somewhere else. It’s scary and so heartbreaking.’’
The number of heroin-related overdose deaths, which averaged about one every other day in Palm Beach County in 2015, is on a pace to rise by at least 30 percent in 2016, Medical Examiner Michael Bell has told The Post. The heroin task force put the number of dead so far this year at more than 400.
Frank Oddo of Delray Beach also emailed McKinlay to share the story of his son, Frank Oddo Jr., who died of a suspected heroin-related overdose in Delray Beach on Oct. 13.
“My son struggled with this disease for three or four years. He left an 8-month-old baby. He was 26 years old,’’ Oddo said. “I tried everything I could do to help him but he had this disease that controlled his brain.”
Oddo said he was eager to work with McKinlay and he hopes other families will join him.
“Hopefully we can get a demonstration or a rally or a march to raise awareness to this so we don’t keep losing our children,’’ he said.
“Even though I know nobody tied my son down and put a needle in his arm, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about it. I know all these people who take heroin have a disease. I’m not blaming the government or the commission or anyone but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a stand, and if I can help one family save their child, then that would be enough for me to honor my son’s name.’’
Other families are skeptical that local and state leaders will make significant changes.
In an email to The Post, she wondered if leaders have “much fire in the belly to attack this epidemic. I saw more fervent reaction to the Zika virus. Perhaps these leaders cannot yet process the magnitude of what is going on, not only in Palm Beach County, but in all parts of this country.”
However, Bergman said she applauds McKinlay for trying.
“It’s too late for Stephanie,” she said, “but maybe something can be done to help save someone else.”