Earlier this month, I visited with 98-year old Josephine Kirby of West Columbia, W.Va. Kirby has worked in Fowler’s Grocery Store her entire life and continues to open for business every Monday-Saturday. When visiting with Josephine, we discovered she was only two years younger than my late grandmother and they were practically neighbors growing up. As Josephine put it, “She (my Nannie) lived on the right side of Lieving Road going out, and then they built a new house and moved to the left side.” I did not know this. Isn’t it funny when someone tells a story about our departed loved ones, it’s like they’re in the room again with us, if only for a moment?
Josephine also told me she’d kept Nannie’s obituary that ran in the Point Pleasant Register in 2004. In fact, she said she made a habit of keeping obituaries. I didn’t know people did this but a few days later, I found another senior citizen who had the same sort of “collection” that is equal parts sentimentality, equal parts historical archive.
As a reporter, I’ve read, and typed, a lot of obituaries. In the last few years, I’ve noticed some people under the age of 50 dying with no cause listed. Typically, if someone dies young or relatively young (50 is the new 40, right?), the obituary states a reason, like “cancer” or some unforeseen twist of fate, such as a car accident, or fire, or undiagnosed medical condition. More and more, there are people dying before their time with no reason listed in their obituary, though for some, there is a reason no one wants to put in writing. Drug overdoses and opioid deaths are becoming common in the tri-county area. I’m not breaking some big story by telling you this, but I will tell you what I heard and saw in just one day as your editor covering the drug issue.
On Thursday, I stopped by the Point Pleasant Police Department to pick up information on a drug bust where 25 bags of alleged heroin weighing 3.99 grams, was seized in a home along the main road through the city. While I was at the police station, I watched as an officer and police secretary, carefully placed a container of used needles into a bag for transport to Pleasant Valley Hospital for safe disposal. The needles had been collected over a period of time from around the city. For a moment, I thought of those needles laying around like grotesque leaves piled against an old house nobody lives in.
While at the Point PD, Mason County Sheriff Greg Powers stopped in, as did Gallipolis City Police Chief Jeff Boyer. I was struck by how, despite being from different states, all were having the same conversation about how to deal with the drug issue. This was another example of the tri-county region being basically the same place with different zip codes. Powers spoke about his deputies possibly carrying Naloxone, a drug that blocks opioid overdose symptoms, in the near future. Boyer talked about how his officers already have it, using it on calls.
During this same conversation, PPPD Chief Joe Veith told me carfentinal, a synthetic opioid meant to tranquilize elephants, has appeared in Point Pleasant. I looked it up, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), carfentanil is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin. When it comes to heroin and people getting a bad batch of it, it was a quote Veith gave me a couple of years ago that sticks in my mind: “There’s no such thing as a good batch of heroin.”
Later that same day, I attended my first Gallia County Chamber of Commerce Meeting and Awards Banquet as editor of Ohio Valley Publishing. Field of Hope Community Campus Executive Director Kevin Dennis was given the Bud and Donna McGhee Community Service Award. Dennis is active in the recovery community and spoke to those at the banquet about the necessity of tackling the drug epidemic in southeast Ohio. Prior to Dennis being presented with his award, my colleague, reporter Dean Wright, received an email from the office of Gallia County Sheriff Matt Champlin that a drug bust involving suspected heroin had occurred. Just as the awards were about to be presented, Dean and I were sitting at our Gallipolis Daily Tribune table, putting up the story from our chairs and smartphones; letting the community know that two people from Bidwell and one from Racine in Meigs County, had been arrested.
As the story began to gain traffic on our Tribune Facebook page, Dennis told those at the banquet: “I really believe in my heart folks that God is going to turn this around. He can do it. I’ve seen it individually and I’ve seen it in the community. I think someday the state of Ohio is going to look at this little pinhole in southeast Ohio and say ‘Wow. It started down there. Now we know how lives can be changed.’”
I hope he is right about Him and us. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not picking on Mason, Gallia or Meigs counties in this piece. This epidemic is everywhere and knows no boundaries. Much like death and taxes, opioid abuse seems to be the great equalizer in these communities, at least for now. As Dennis pointed out, the first of the 12 steps is admitting there is a problem. It should also be noted that when someone talks about our departed loved ones, though it feels as if they’re in the room with us for a moment, they’re really not.
Sometimes I wonder what people in the future will think, when looking through Josephine’s obituary collection from these last few years. Will they think there was a plague that claimed so many? If they do, they would be right.
Beth Sergent is the editor of Ohio Valley Publishing which includes the Point Pleasant Register, Gallipolis Daily Tribune, The Daily Sentinel and Sunday Times-Sentinel. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-675-1333, ext. 1992, 740-446-2342, ext. 2102.