To The Brink And Back: Combating Drug Overdoses In Winnebago County

Mar 29, 2016

The rate of heroin-related overdose deaths in Winnebago County is among the highest in Illinois.

Deaths involving drugs in the county nearly tripled in the last decade. Longtime County Coroner Sue Fiduccia says that means it's time to think outside the box when it comes to breaking down the stigma surrounding addiction and treatment.

One method you may already be aware of is using overdose reversal drugs, such as naloxone. In 2016, training people in this option is becoming increasingly more available.

Bonnie Falzone-Capriola demonstrates a naloxone tester by putting it into her thigh similar to a real-life situation. The tester has an automated voice that tells a person how to administer it.
Credit Jenna Dooley

Some doses of naloxone come in packages that look like beepers. Remember those? If you don’t, think a little smaller than a deck of cards. The overdose reversal drug goes by a couple of brand names, including Narcan. It is used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The drug comes in several different methods of delivery.

Bonnie Falzone-Capriola, with Rockford’s Hope Over Addiction, trains people to use naloxone in case they want to keep it in their home.

“After you leave the clinic you could go home and you could play with this over and over," she said, "and, God forbid you’re in the situation where you need to use it, you would go right on to the real deal.”

In Winnebago County, nearly 100 deaths last year involved drugs -- and more than a dozen saves using the powerful overdose-reversal drug.

It’s something that wasn’t as readily available when Falzone-Capriola's son Barry was battling addiction.

“He tried to quit on his own for almost a year before he told me," she recalls. "I was sitting on my front porch -- it was a sunny day in the beginning of September. He said, ‘Mom, I have to tell you something,’ and I said ‘okay.’ And he said, ‘Mom, you’re not going to be happy.’ And I said ‘Barry, what?’ He’s bipolar. We’ve been dealing with mental illness, we’ve been dealing with all kinds of things. You never know what’s going to come out of his mouth. ‘Mom, I am addicted to heroin.' I can recall it in my mind like the world just slowed down."

I just said ‘Oh, my God, Barry, are you serious?’ I said ‘You’ve tried to stop?’ And he said, ‘Mom, I’ve been trying for a long time, I need help.’ Once I got into that world, I realized I wasn’t a mom calling for help, I was one of hundreds of moms.”    - Bonnie Falzone-Capriola

Falzone-Capriola says her son spent years in and out of rehab centers.

photo collage of Barry Falzone, who died from a drug overdose in 2011. His mother now works with the group Hope Over Addiction and trains people to use the overdose reversal drug naloxone.
Credit Bonnie Falzone-Capriola

He died in 2011. At age 25, he was one of dozens of deaths that year involving drugs in Winnebago County.

“He had this thought process that he was born to suffer for some reason. He got to a place where he accepted it, and I didn’t like that," Falzone-Capriola said.

She called her son an "old soul" who struggled with how his addiction was hurting his loved ones.

“They look at people with substance abuse/misuse disorders and they say, ‘They are choosing to do it. That’s just the life they want.’  They don’t realize that every day they wake up they hate themselves. Every day is a chase. They don’t even get to start their day with ‘What am I going to do today?’ It’s, 'Where am I going to get my fix first?’”

Coroner: Naloxone Helping Reduce Drug-related Deaths

Winnebago County Coroner Sue Fiduccia has been associated with that office for more than 40 years.

Credit Numbers from Winnebago County Coroner / Data visualization done in collaboration with the ddiLab in the Department of Computer Science at Northern Illinois University

She has seen the number of deaths involving drugs rising in the county. She calls it an epidemic. A decade ago, there were 33 such deaths.  In 2013, there were more than 120. Deaths involving heroin and cocaine lead the pack.

Fiduccia says drug-related deaths have been down a bit since 2013. The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department administered Narcan 24 times in 2014. All but one survived.

"There’s our numbers," Fiduccia says. "If they hadn’t administered the Narcan, would those folks have died? Probably. But they didn’t. I attribute that to our numbers being down.”

Fiduccia says making Narcan more readily available has been controversial.

“I kind of did the thing ... ‘Oh my gosh, then we are just kind of giving them permission to do this. Go ahead and get your high and we will get you out of it.' Needless to say, that has not been the case. The families are not doing that. They are not letting the people know that are addicted that they do have Narcan in the home. It is being used as a last-minute resource. Sometimes it brings them out of it, sometimes it does not.”

Life After Narcan

Josh Shuga's hospital bill showing the amount of Narcan he received on the day of his overdose.

Just last month, 27-year-old Josh Shuga of Rockford was brought back from the brink of what would have been a fatal heroin overdose. It took four doses of Narcan to save him.

“I woke up," he said, "and mad isn’t the word. I was pissed. I started pulling the IV out of me.”

It was his first overdose, but he’s been using drugs for years. “I shot up, and they call it a 'rig.' I looked at it and thought it looked like just a little too much.”

It started with a bad back. He got addicted to OxyContin, but the pills got expensive and his medical records flag him as an addict.

His mom, Connie Holmes, has spent years trying to help her son manage his addiction. She didn’t find out he had overdosed until a few days after it happened.

Even though he doesn’t currently live with her, she now has the overdose reversal drug in her home.

But what happens after the big save? 

“It was an overwhelming feeling," Holmes said. "I told my husband, 'You know what? I am probably happier right now than I have been.’ He said, ‘Why?’"

CONNIE: I said, ‘Josh has finally hit rock bottom.' There was no further down for him.

JOSH: Yeah, there was.

CONNIE: Yeah, six feet. The fact is that he made it through there. That day is the first day that I actually started to live.

Shuga continues to see doctors about his back, and he says talking things out is what helps him in his recovery. He is also slowly rebuilding relationships with his family and his mother.

“Yeah, I put her through hell," Shuga admits. "No one wanted to be around me because they couldn’t trust me, or that I was high and they didn’t want to see me that way. I would still want to be there for everything, I would still want to come over. I would still want to be in my little sister’s life. I would still want all of my family ...  it was just that I had this extra baggage.”

He continues his recovery.

Credit Winnebago County Sheriff's Office

“I am still a really good, hard worker," Shuga says. "I can still get stuff done. People talk to me, and they think I am screwed up or high or something. I’m not high. This is what it has done to me -- and I know this  -- and I beat myself up so much."

His mother says there is still work to do, but as long as she sees that her son is still trying, she says she will be there for him. But she also says, as a taxpaying citizen, she wants her son to be accountable for his actions.

That can be a tough spot for a loving mother.

“I told him, ‘When you start getting better, you are going to have to forgive yourself.’”

She says then he will be able to resolve hurts with others.

“I told him someday he’s gotta be strong enough to go to that person and say ‘I forgive you,’" Holmes says. "Even if that person doesn’t know, it’s just that he knows in his heart that he forgave that person that started to create that little boy that he was before.”

More Resources

New York Times: How the Epidemic of Drug Overdose Deaths Ripples Across America

20/20 (ABC) "Breaking Point: Heroin In America"

CBS Cares: "Mom" Overdose Episode PSA

Boston Globe: Language Of Addiction Itself Can Hurt, Advocates Say

NPR: A Small Town Wonders What To Do When Heroin Is 'Everywhere'

NPR: In 2016, States Expected To Ramp Up Ideas To Solve Opiate Abuse

Rockford-Area Treatment/Support Programs

Rosecrance Rockford

-Mulberry Crisis Intervention Center

Remedies Renewing Lives

Celebrate Recovery-Heartland

Reformers Unanimous

Narcotics Anonymous-Rockford