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Heroin’s hold takes growing toll in Western Pennsylvania

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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Gary and Darlene Mazak, 58 and 57, hold photos of their late son, Steven, in their home Monday in Murrysville. 'Even in the halfway house, he didn't care if all those other guys were around, he'd come up to me and hug me and say, 'I love you mom,' just like he did when he was a kid,' said Darlene of her son, who died of a heroin overdose at age 20 in 2011.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Darlene Mazak, 57, of Murrysville touches one of the sets of wind chimes in her backyard Monday. The chimes, hanging from pine trees that border her yard, were given to her upon her son's death of a heroin overdose in 2011 at age 20. Mazak said she used to set up a chair by the chimes and sit and think of her son.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Wind chimes hang from pine trees that border the yard of Gary and Darlene Mazak. The chimes were given to them upon their son Steven's death of a heroin overdose in 2011 at age 20. Darlene said she used to set up a chair by the chimes and sit and think of her son. 'That's what I miss most about him, is those hugs,' said Darlene of her son, who she said loved to be hugged. 'Because I can still smell him, I can still feel him.'

It started so innocently, Darlene Mazak said.

Her son Steven was an athlete. He played baseball and basketball and made travel teams. Then he got hurt — the growth plate slipped in one hip and then the other, requiring surgery. And pills, lots of pain pills.

“It wasn't that we were saying, ‘Here, take them whenever you want,' ”Mazak of Murrysville said. “But he was in pain. He kept saying he needed more.”

By ninth grade, Steven was skipping school. He tried heroin at 13, and nothing was the same.

“I think of Steven as a little boy and how he used to sit on my lap because he loved to be hugged,” Mazak said. “We'd just sit on the couch, and he'd hug me, and he didn't care who was around. He'd kiss me and say, ‘I love you, Mom.' Even in the halfway houses, he didn't care if all those other guys were around, he'd come up to me and hug me and say, ‘I love you, Mom,' just like he did when he was a kid.

“That's what I miss most about him, those hugs. Because I can still smell him; I can still feel him.”

Steven Mazak died of a heroin overdose in 2011 at 20 — one more victim of a drug epidemic the likes of which the state and country have never before seen.

In Pennsylvania, 47 people died in 2009 as the result of a heroin or opioid overdose; five years later, more than 800 people died, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey said last month when announcing his support for legislation to combat heroin addiction.

“It's unacceptable to look at that number, throw up our hands and say, ‘There's nothing we can do,' ” said Casey, D-Scranton. “We can't stand by and wait while the disease of addiction cuts away promising lives.”

Yet, America has done exactly that — stand by — as the problem gets exponentially worse, according to those on the front lines.

Advocates, medical professionals, counselors and addicts' families said they listen to such words with weary optimism, hoping that this time the rest of society gets the message that heroin is here, it affects everyone, and it's not going away.

“Several years ago, I was saying this is the worst we've ever seen, that there are more people using heroin and opioids than any time in our history,” said Dr. Neil Capretto, director of Gateway Rehabilitation Services in Moon. “Today, it's much worse. And I'm still saying those same things.”

‘A miserable life'

When Capretto started Gateway in 1989, his detox center averaged four patients a day, he said — three for alcohol and one for opioids.

Today, the center's 28 beds often are filled by mid-afternoon. Then the waiting list begins.

“We still have the three for alcohol, but we also have 25 for heroin and opioids,” he said. “Twenty years ago, you had to go to the inner city to get it. If you moved out to the suburbs, you were immune to it, for the most part. But that is no longer the case. This has spread like an infectious disease throughout our communities.”

Contributing to the problem is a stigma attached to addiction, officials said.

The unaffected view addicts as deserving victims, anti-heroin advocates said.

In reality, they said, addiction — which typically starts with legally prescribed pain pills — cuts through every city and town, every age group, and every socioeconomic background.

“People see heroin addiction as a behavioral issue, but it's not,” said Sarah Younger, a drug and alcohol counselor in Greensburg.

“These people are prisoners to their disease. I have people sobbing in my office. I know very few heroin addicts who don't hate heroin. They hate the fact they rely on it and disappoint their families, that they lose their children and their jobs. It's a miserable life.”

Younger was among hundreds of Western Pennsylvanians who traveled to Washington on Oct. 3 for the Fed Up Rally, at which participants urged politicians to take action. Thousands of people attended, despite heavy rain and the threat of Hurricane Joaquin.

Everybody knows somebody

Less than two weeks later, Casey and Sen. Pat Toomey held a Senate Health Care Subcommittee field hearing on heroin and opioid addiction at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh's North Side. Every seat in the 270-person-capacity auditorium was taken, and dozens of people sat or stood in aisles.

The large turnout opened eyes.

“I expected there would be a lot of interest, but that was more than I expected,” Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, said afterward. “It tells you this is a huge problem, and everybody knows somebody that's been affected. When I go back (to Washington), I'll certainly be telling my colleagues about the experience we had here.”

Capretto told the senators in testimony that day that 90 percent to 95 percent of heroin addicts he treats start by using legally prescribed pain pills, such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet. They get hooked on the pills, which can cost $80 apiece on the black market, then turn to heroin, which is more potent than ever and can be bought in $5 or $10 baggies.

“The bottom line is, there is a lot of heroin out there,” Capretto said. “The demand is great, and the supply is tremendous.”

Holding out hope

Politicians said they are getting the message.

Casey supports two bills: the Recovery Enhancement for Addiction Treatment Act, or TREAT Act, and the Treatment and Recovery Act. In a conference call with reporters, he said the bills would increase the number of health care providers who can treat addicts, and increase funding for prevention and treatment programs.

At the Senate subcommittee field hearing, Toomey — who chairs the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Health Care — called for halting illegal diversion of prescription painkillers, reducing overuse of opioids for treating long-term pain and helping addicts receive proper treatment. He introduced legislation to prevent inappropriate access to opioids.

The families of overdose victims hope such legislation will help, sparing others their suffering.

Carmen Capozzi, who founded the group “Sage's Army” to raise awareness when his son Sage died of an overdose in 2012, said life loses meaning when your child dies.

“Twenty years of raising your child, and then all of a sudden, it's over,” he said.

When Sage died, Capozzi was haunted by dreams of his son. In his dreams, Sage would visit him as a little boy and sit on the edge of Capozzi's bed.

“He would be sitting there, but I could never touch him,” Capozzi said. “Then I had a dream where he was older, and he let me hug him.

“That's the only time I was able to touch him in the dream. And that's the last dream I ever had of him.”

Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or [email protected].

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