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Opioid epidemic claiming lives in SLO County

County leaders approve funds for in-patient treatment center
Posted: 6:32 PM, Nov 27, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-27 22:32:41-05
Opioid epidemic claiming lives in SLO County

The opioid crisis is hitting San Luis Obispo County with a deadly punch and local leaders are looking for ways to offer addicts treatment at home instead of forcing them to seek help in far away cities.

For one Atascadero family, who lost a son to a drug overdose in 2016, the addition of new local resources for addicts comes too late.

"My last Mother's Day, he sent me the most beautiful card," Kim Lacey said about her son, Ty. "He posted on Facebook, 'best mom in the world.' That was everything."

Ty wrote that card while in treatment for drug addiction at the age of 22, just days before his death.

"He was doing so well, then we had the police come to the door," Ty's father, Dan Graham, recalls.

Looking at a photo of her son when he was a young boy, Lacey says she's still heartbroken over his death.

"How would you ever look at the face and know life would get as difficult and troubled as it did?" Lacey said.

Ty died after three months of sobriety from an overdose of what his parents believe to be a lethal mix of heroin and methamphetamine.

The details may be different, but this same story can be told by hundreds of families in San Luis Obispo County.

"You may inject something into your vein and before you can pull the needle out, you're gone," San Luis Obispo County Coroner Joye Carter M.D. said.

Carter sees addicts at the end of their story.

From 2015 to 2018, Carter noted in a report that opioids were a primary cause in 282 deaths, accounting for about 4 percent of all deaths in the county. Combined with stimulants and sedatives, opioids were a factor in about 8 percent of all deaths, according to Carter's report .

"How do you address all this when you have a culture that's asking for pain relief?" Carter said.

Stories of the American opioid epidemic often show faces of teens and young adults.

But of the 532 deaths linked to drugs and alcohol in SLO County, the user profile is different.

"It has been older and more male," Julianna Fluit, the co-founder of Haven Addiction Treatment Center in Pismo Beach, said.

Fluit said her office is seeing a slight increase in clients addicted to opioids.

"Every patient that comes in with opioid use disorder or sedatitive hypnotic disorder, like Xanax, they test positive for fentanyl and they don't even know," Fluit said.

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Fentanyl, a powerful opioid often mixed with heroin, killed 10 people in SLO County between May and October this year, prompting an alert from county health officials.

"2019 has been a banner year for fentanyl overdoses," Carter said.

But for addicts, getting help before they end up on Carter's table can be challenging.

"It's a tragedy that it's so hard to find treatment, especially residential, in our county," Lacey said.

No treatment center in SLO County would accept Ty's state-sponsored MediCal insurance, so he was admitted to a facility in Santa Cruz.

"That means taking time off work, gas money," Lacey said. "Sometimes it's useful to be removed from your surroundings but it also takes you away from all the support systems you have at home."

The sense of support is something recovering addicts are encouraged to find while in group classes at the Haven.

"Staying connected is a vital part of staying sober," Fluit said.

A recovered addict herself, Fluit knows the value of connection.

"I actually OD'd in 2005, so I've seen all ends of this thing," Fluit said.

That journey led Fluit to co-found the Haven.

Though the County Board of Supervisors did approve funds in April to build a residential treatment center next to 40 Prado, today, the Haven remains the only in-patient treatment center in SLO County.

Supervisors also voted last month to apply for a $255,000 grant to help prevent overdose deaths and other problems related to opioid abuse in the county.

But for addicts who can't find, afford or simply seek out help in time, the outcome is, for families, a hard pill to swallow.

"I don't seize up every time I see his picture anymore," Graham said. "But I think about him every day. I'd give anything to have him back."

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