Podcast Explores a Person’s Last Day of Life Before Dying from Overdose

By Stephanie Wittels Wachs 02/21/20

The podcast series shows how treating those with substance use disorders with dignity and respect can shift the social stigma around opioid treatment, humanize the experience for all of us, and ultimately save lives.

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Last Day
Last Day

In 2015, I lost my brother, beloved comedian Harris Wittels, to a heroin overdose. He was 30 years old. Two years later, Jessica Cordova Kramer lost her brother, Stefano Cordova, Jr., to a fentanyl overdose. He was 34. We didn’t know it at the time, but our similar losses would soon morph into something much bigger than us, our brothers, or our families. This loss would bring us to Last Day.

Starting in season 1 with the opioid crisis, Last Day from Lemonada Media zooms in on a person’s last day of life, exploring how they got there and how we, as a society, have gotten here. Nearly one in three people know someone with an opioid use disorder. Last Day leverages first-person storytelling to humanely examine an American epidemic that has taken 400,000 lives since 1999, breaking through the data to expose the human impact and the role society, public policy, and health care should play to combat it.

To start, we meet me, host Stephanie Wittels Wachs, who, with humor (yes, humor) and vulnerability, lays out my personal connection to the topic. From there, the podcast zooms in on Stefano Cordova Jr.’s last day of life before his accidental fentanyl overdose, including a “rewind the tape” episode that explores whether any of it could have been prevented. Last Day then progressively and insightfully zooms out to reframe the narrative and understand the complex factors that obscure and prolong this national health crisis. Listeners have revelations right along with me, as my perspective shifts in real-time.

This show offers truckloads of insight. Listeners are exposed to the throng of perspectives of those impacted by this epidemic, from paramedics who treat the same individual multiple times a day, to a woman who was incarcerated, beaten, stabbed, and sexually assaulted in a maximum-security prison for forging false prescriptions, to the children caught up in the crisis all across America, in cities and rural communities.

Last Day exposes the largely ineffective treatment centers and America’s unwillingness to invest in effective harm reduction strategies like medication assisted treatment and safe injection sites. The show discusses national policy, legislative efforts, and international solutions that have worked while highlighting personal stories about the hidden toll of this crisis, including adoptive parents of children born with drug exposure and those struggling themselves with drug dependency.

Our Last Day team is doing the back-breaking work of creating a roadmap for policymakers, recovery experts, medical professionals, and family members like myself to view addiction as a manageable chronic disease rather than a guaranteed fatal illness. Guests this season have included Sarah Silverman and Aziz Ansari (debriefing my brother Harris’s death), Dr. Gabor Maté (the link between childhood trauma and addiction), Congressman Patrick Kennedy (exploring the federal health policies that help and hinder progress, as well as his own demons), Dr. Nzinga A. Harrison (an addiction medicine doctor who is creating a new whole-person model for sustained and humane treatment), Dave from Dopey podcast (deep-diving on AA and the 12 Steps), and other experts (Andy Slavitt, Michael Botticelli, David Smith, Dr. Robert Meyers), harm reductionists (Hiawatha Collins, Dr. Sam Snodgrass), authors (David Sheff, Ben Westhoff), and community leaders (Mayors Svante Myrick and Marty Walsh, as well as DeRay Mckesson).

Part serial narrative, part feature storytelling (think 20-20 meets Serial), Last Day frames addiction as an acquired disease of brain structure and function, not a choice or moral failing. Listeners become immersed in the intimate details of why Stefano was refused a life-saving dose of Vivitrol and what it’s like to be seven-months sober on a methadone maintenance program. The podcast series shows how treating those with substance use disorders with dignity and respect can shift the social stigma around opioid treatment, humanize the experience for all of us, and ultimately save lives.

By investigating often-times controversial solutions, Last Day brings a clear focus to the fact that solutions to this crisis do exist. As one example shows, medically staffed safe injection sites could save 20,000 lives a year; another, that medication-assisted treatment reduces mortality by 50 percent. The show is urgently painting a picture of hope around how to solve this massive public health crisis while reaching a wide and growing audience.

We have interviewed over 60 people as of February 2020, all to create a 25-episode season that tells the compelling, human story of this oft sensationalized crisis. Furthermore, much of the content can be extrapolated beyond the opioid crisis to apply to other serious substance use disorders. 

Since January, the second half of the season is expanding the reach of the show through more “last day” stories and an even deeper-dive into treatment options in America. Last Day is creating the American roadmap out of the opioids crisis and is a must-listen for all who are impacted by addiction, including policy makers, health care providers, first responders, loved ones, and family members.

After losing both of our brothers to opioid overdoses, Executive Producer Jessica Cordova Kramer and I decided to tell the story of our brothers’ deaths with the goal of saving lives. And we believe we are doing that. But in the process, we created a much bigger platform for content and community. In April 2019, we founded Lemonada Media, a podcast network that shares the unfiltered version of humanity. Find us and all of our shows at www.lemonadamedia.com.

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