School Closings and Delays across the Tennessee Valley

The Deadly Cost of Fentanyl: Doctors, investigators, addicts feel the drug’s terrible burden

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Loen Beasley knows firsthand just how dangerous Fentanyl can be, and he’s lived to tell about it.

“This is my second go around, I was here last year from August of 16 to August of 17,” Beasley says, speaking during a break at the Downtown Rescue Mission’s faith-based recovery program.

Fentanyl is much more potent than heroin and the leading cause of overdose deaths in the United States.

Law enforcement professionals, doctors, counselors and addicts in North Alabama are all feeling Fentanyl’s terrible weight.

Beasley was betting his life on every hit.

“I was thinking, ‘Hey, I'll do this, it's cheaper, it's more strong.”

He overdosed on Fentanyl, not once, but three times, and he's not alone.

“We have guys 18, 19 years old that have just graduated high school that are wrestling with a huge drug problem,” says Kevin Mays, director of the Downtown Rescue Mission’s men’s ministry. “It is an epidemic that is ravaging our young people.”

Mays says that Fentanyl is easy to get a hold of, but its hold on users is anything but easy to escape.

“It is an epidemic that is ravaging our young people,” he says.

Beasley agrees.

“People just get in this deep, dark hole in their life where it feels like it doesn't matter anymore.”

No community has been spared the effects of Fentanyl.

“People don't realize the fingers this has. There's a lot of people that suffer with this, that deal with this every day,” says Eddie Houk, chief deputy for operations at the Madison County Sheriff’s Office.

Houk says dealers are adding Fentanyl to other illicit drugs.

"It's a huge problem here. We have heroin dealers who will obviously lace their heroin with Fentanyl to make it more potent, and to stretch it out, to make more of it,” Houk says.

Madison County Sheriff’s Office Captain Michael Salomonsky says the drug is the deadliest kind of bet.

“Playing Russian roulette with – ‘Is there Fentanyl or is there not?’”

Salomonsky says that the drug is not only dangerous for users, but can also be life-threatening for officers. That's why they keep Narcan – an opioid overdose antidote – handy.

“So now we've gone and we've stationed it in CID (the Criminal Investigation Division), in the evidence room, we have it in places where it's exposed, we can give them immediate help,” Salomonsky says.

While law enforcement is working to get Fentanyl off the streets, local hospitals are facing the daunting task of trying to save Fentanyl’s victims.

Dr. Sherrie Squyres is the medical director of the emergency room at Huntsville Hospital. She knows the problems, too well.

“I've never seen a drug abuse epidemic like we've got going on today, especially one that is so fatal,” Squyres says. “I mean, we're losing tons of people.”

Squyres says the drug’s effects are merciless.

“Mainly these are young people that have had their lives ahead of them and now they're being wiped out."

Squyres says they treat at least one overdose victim per day. But that number doesn't accurately reflect the actual number of overdoses in Huntsville, since many don’t make it to the hospital.

“HEMSI does respond to several in a month and they are using record numbers of (opioid antidote) Nalaxone,” Squyres says. “Sometimes Fentanyl users are revived, but often they are not.”

Despite the training doctors receive to help them share news of a loved one's death, Squyres says Fentanyl overdoses are particularly heartbreaking.

“Of all the times I've had to do that, most of the time the parent will say, ‘I knew I was going to get this call one of these days.’”

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