FOREST PARK – The high that people experience when they intake heroin and other opiates is very similar to the euphoric feeling that a group of walkers got Saturday in Forest Park.
The occurrence was no accident.
The comparison between the two feelings was just one nugget of information being presented during CareSTL’s Opioid Awareness Walk.
About 100 people showed up to walk (or run) in support of the clinic’s effort to boost awareness of the drug epidemic.
“I’m really impressed. I see more people than I expected, and I’m glad that we’re walking,” CareSTL’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Leslie Etuk, said. She explained, “We are making our own opioids with the endorphins in our bodies, so we’re creating our own high just by walking.”
Participants included people from both sides of the opioid addiction track. Some were blacks who have largely known of opiates as the illegal drug heroin since the 1960s. And some were whites who have recently been introduced to it as a legal, medically prescribed pain killer such as percocet, hydrocodone, norco, morphine or tramadol,
White or black, they came carrying horrific stories and experiences with the highly addictive and debilitating class of drugs, including overdose deaths and suicides. Some of their experiences intersected.
April Washington, a St. Louis transplant from Chicago, said she was walking in memory of her late friend Jarred. A heroin user, he killed himself about nine years ago.
“He was tired of being addicted to heroin and being high all the time – he just couldn’t take it anymore,” Washington said.
Ellis Fitzwalter walked in memory of his son, Michael Fitzwalter. Just 23, he died of a heroin overdose in 2014. Ellis Fitzwalter started H.E.A.L.: Stop Heroin Inc.
“We’ve learned so much more about this epidemic than we ever really wanted to,” Fitzwalter said, referring to himself and his wife, Patti.
CareSTL Health offered varied vendors, information and support to people such as Washington and Fitzwalter.
St. Louis police Chief John Hayden spoke to attendees from his perspective.
This year in St. Louis there have been more than 150 fatal heroin overdoses. At least 50 percent of homicides in the city stem from drugs, including heroin. To date this year, he said, there have been more than 200 drug-related deaths in the city, primarily in north St. Louis.
“I want to be clear about what is decimating our community,” Hayden said. “It is drugs – whether it’s people fighting over drugs or slowly dying from drug abuse.
“So I hope that the awareness learned here will help make a difference.”
Recently, illicitly manufactured fentanyl has been added to heroin or ingested alone. Fentanyl, a powerful drug first used to relieve pain in cancer patients, increases the possibility of a lethal result.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, overdose deaths linked to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl increased more than 45 percent from 2016 to 2017.
More than 702,000 Americans have died from drug overdoses from 1999 to 2017 – about 10 percent of them in 2017 alone, according to the CDC.
Angela Claybon, CEO of CareSTL Health, said that she had lost family members to heroin overdoses and that about six young family members were currently struggling against addiction to the drug.
She too was susceptible in 2012 when she suffered from severe back pain and was prescribed tramadol. She said that because she worked in the health care field, she received information and knew how to avoid becoming addicted.
Many other people do not, which is why she decided to organize an awareness walk.
“This is something that is very dear to me,” she said. “It is the first step, but we will do this every year, because if we save one life, it is worth it, and I’m making sure that there is awareness on what it means to north St. Louis,” she said.