Heroin Overdoses Devastate Small Indiana Town

By Jonita Davis 03/20/17

One heroin surge in February 2017 took three lives and sent 15 others to drug treatment in the small town of La Porte, Indiana. Residents believe it's just the beginning.

A woman holds a sign protesting bad treatment of addicts.
Heroin epidemics don't discriminate.

February is supposed to be the month of love and anticipation for spring. But after a harrowing week in La Porte, Indiana, February may just be remembered as the month that heroin attacked the town.

La Porte is a small town of roughly 22,000 people in Vice President Mike Pence’s state of Indiana. The town is like many others in suburban Indiana. Actually, the town does not look like the stereotypically dangerous place where a spike in heroin overdoses would occur. It is made up of working class and low-income families. The median income is $34,130. It is 84% white, with 11.7% Hispanic and 1.9% black.

Pence is in Washington rallying against the black urban neighborhoods of Chicago. Meanwhile, just an hour to the east, people are overdosing and dying because of a heroin epidemic that has taken over the small Indiana town.

According to the Indiana State Department of Health, Division of Trauma and Injury Prevention, the number of non-fatal overdoses due to heroin more than doubled from 2009 to 2015. La Porte County Sheriff’s Captain Mike Kellems has repeatedly said that the number is rising every year. Kellems has gone before the media on several occasions since February’s overdose surge to draw attention to the heroin epidemic in La Porte and the county it shares a name with. In his last press interview, Kellem stated, “We need help. We need the community talking to us. We need people calling in tips. We're pulling all of our resources together to bring a stop to this.”

Seven days before Kellems spoke to the press, La Porte residents awoke to the news that six people had overdosed on heroin. News spread through social media as the community discussed possible solutions. Many thought the La Porte County Sheriff’s newest program of carrying Narcan had led to the spike. The first Narcan doses carried by police were issued to the deputies in April 2016 and the first use was the very next month. La Porte’s more conservative population seems to be split on the effectiveness of Narcan, and its alleged ability to enable opioid abuse. Until the February surge, many residents still believed in criminalizing addiction instead of treating it.

Narcan is a brand-name for naloxone, a medication that is administered through the nasal cavity or by injection to reverse an overdose. First responders and police in La Porte County carry the lifesaving doses to help as many victims as possible. During this period in February, 15 people were saved due to Narcan doses issued by police and first responders. One person reportedly needed seven doses to thwart death.

Eight people had to be treated on the first day of opioid overdoses. Two of them, a 58-year-old woman and an 18-year-old man, did not survive. Capt. Kellems and other county officials warned the community to stay on alert. Over the next couple of days, there were more overdoses. People were speculating on the source of the life-threatening heroin, while mourning losses. In such a small town, that many deaths touch just about everyone in some way. Kaitee Silva, a lifelong La Porte resident, knew most of the people who had overdosed.

Then, the epidemic hit Silva’s front lawn. Afterward, she posted on the local news Facebook page, “The latest drug overdose happened next door to me, about an hour ago. Two guys, one was 17, and the other is around 18. One revived with Narcan.” Silva lives in a duplex with a shared lawn. She opened the door just in time to catch a group of teens depositing two bodies onto the porch of her duplex neighbor. Silva took action, calling the police and assessing the state of the teens. Her husband, Jose, decided to detain the "friends" until the police got there.

“My kids got to see someone purple, eyes rolled back in his head. The friends were going to leave him on the porch. I found him. I called 911. My husband kept the friends from leaving,” Silva’s post added. Later, when I spoke to Silva to get the whole story behind her post, I was struck by her stoicism. She described the events as if she were recounting a visit to the dentist's office. There was no shock, no outrage, no expression of positive or negative excitation. I asked about her lack of affect. “It’s been going on for so long. I’m just so tired of it,” she said.

There would be two more days of overdoses in the news before the surge ended on February 24th. By that time, the rest of the county shared Silva’s sentiment. Everyone was tired and hoping for a solution.

Toni Mandeville works in the trenches with addicts and their families. She is a Human Services Board Certified Practitioner, an Adult and Juvenile Certified Interventionist, a Certified Moral Reconation Therapy Facilitator, and an Addiction Recovery Mentor. She talked candidly about the epidemic and her role in helping the town of La Porte and others like it in the county. Mandeville knows addiction well; she is celebrating 25 years sober this year.

Mandeville works at Keys to Hope Community Resource Center, where she helps addicts in every stage of recovery. “We don’t worry about the disease but the whole life … What’s the incentive in staying sober when you are an addict with a criminal record that you’ve been working on since 15? Now you’re 30 years old with no life skills and felonies. These are the people we need to help.” Mandeville's organization works with businesses and other organizations in the community to help the addicts get their lives back once they become sober.

“Heroin is an illness, not a crime,” says Mandeville. She explained that the number of people needing help and overdosing has skyrocketed in the last two years and that “it’s going to take someone to be touched personally,” in order for her to get the resources her organization needs to help addicts in the county. “Once it’s on their own front door, people get a different perspective.”

The February overdose surge, according to Mandeville, was probably a combination of things. Cheap heroin that was mixed with another more lethal chemical is one of them. The real problem, she says, is the number of overdoses that were not reported. People who “overdosed alone or with someone and recovered. Not all of them are brought to the ER.”

La Porte County is working on a few programs to stem the damage from heroin. PAATH, Public Safety Assisted Access to Treatment and Health, is actually a newly expanded program, similar to PAARI, that allows addicts to go into any police department, hospital, or fire department, and get help. Mandeville says, “They can walk up, turn in their drugs, turn in their rig, and say, ‘I’m an addict. I need some help.’” Doing so kickstarts a process that moves the person from the street to a treatment program. In addition to working toward decriminalizing addiction, PAATH programs align with Mandeville’s philosophy of treating the whole life and not just the addiction.

Chino Del Real is one such life. He gave me a look at addiction and recovery from his perspective. Del Real sympathizes with the people who overdosed; he's been in their shoes.

“Nothing would get in the way of me getting high. My friends and family tried talking to me. They offered to help. Then, when they saw I kept on doing what I was doing anyway, they eventually left me alone … Then, one day I woke up both literally and figuratively, and I decided to ask for help.” Chino would go to rehab and relapse three times before finally landing in jail for three months, where he finally quit without immediately relapsing.

“I was grateful for jail … I knew this was the last rehab trip for me. That was 14 months ago.” Del Real admits that recovery is still hard, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. To other people struggling out there, Del Real says, “You don’t have to be alone and die because of this addiction.”

One heroin surge in February 2017 took three lives and sent 15 others to drug treatment. However, no one is convinced that those 18 people will be the last to overdose in La Porte for the year. “We’re just getting started,” Silva says.

La Porte wasn't the only small town affected by a surge of heroin overdoses in mid-February. Louisville, Kentucky first responders handled over 40 overdoses in a 24-hour period. Bloomington and Muncie in Indiana, Cincinnati in neighboring Ohio, and even Chicago to the west, all experienced surges in overdoses during the same period. This was not an isolated attack, but one that is affecting the country. However, the small towns seem to be where the battle is hitting exceptionally hard.

Unfortunately, everyone I talked to agreed. The siege is just beginning.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Jonita Davis is a writer, avid reader, and writing instructor based on the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Her work has appeared in Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction, Redbook, and Romper. Follow her on Twitter at @SurviTeensNtots or check out her website www.jonitadavis.com.