DES MOINES, Iowa — It is deadly. “Unless you are there when it happens there is no saving them,” said Deric Kidd.
It is deceiving. “This is a 16 year old kid taking one pill that should just be a hydrocodone 500mg and should be going about their day but instead they are dying,” said Deborah Krauss.
It is destructive. “Unfortunately 2 out of 5 of these fake prescription pills contain a lethal dose of fentanyl,” said Gabbie Ruggiero.
Fentanyl is tearing through Iowa communities and across the country leaving families in grief. “It’s really sad to me. I couldn’t even tell you how many funerals I’ve been to at this point. I haven’t gone longer than 24 days in the last three years that I have not heard of someone that I personally had a relationship with that has passed,” Krauss said.
In July of 2021 Fentanyl helped claim the life of Kathy and Deric Kidd’s son Sebastian. “I didn’t know what Fentanyl was until this happened,” said Deric.
Sebastian was just a 17-year-old soon to be senior at Carlisle High School. “Sebastian Alexander. Known for his eyes and his smile,” said Kathy.
Preparing for his soccer season and having suffered from several concussions, a broken collar bone in the past, depression and headaches Sebastian was self medicating with Percocet to help sleep. Deric said “He took a half a pill and we found the other half.”
Deric says his son was receiving the pills from a user on Snapchat. On July 30th he never woke up.
“I opened that door and I saw him laying over his bed with his clothes on and I knew. I said ‘Get up bud you gotta go to work.’ I touched him and I knew. I started screaming and my wife called 911.”
Two months later a medical examiner confirmed to the family the cause. The Percocet was laced with Fentanyl. Deric said ”You don’t know it is in there. You don’t want it. You have no idea.”
For Gabbie Ruggiero, a state opioid response grant coordinator for Employee and Family Resources, this heartbreak is unfortunately increasing rapidly in Iowa. “In 2021 for the first time fentanyl in opioids were causing more deaths than meth. The first year in Polk County,” said Ruggiero.
The Iowa Department of Public Health estimates fentanyl related deaths rose from 31 percent of all overdoses in 2016 to 87 percent in 2021. “Especially with fake prescription drugs we are seeing that young folks are buying these pills and they think are something like Xanax or Percocet but really it is fentanyl that has been pressed into pill form,” Ruggiero said
The CDC says fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times stronger than morphine but much cheaper and easier to manufacture. Making it easier to purchase on a budget.
Ruggiero believes many are unaware that their illicit drug or pill has been crossed with fentanyl until they become dependent on it or dead. “If someone develops a dependency on this drug over time their brain will literally start to change. The brain will compel that person to use even when they know their are negative consequences,” said Ruggiero.
Deborah Krauss was once dependent on opioids. She said, “I can tell you from experience to detox off an opiate is one of the worst things I’ve ever been through in my entire life.”
Krauss now serves as Director of the Central Iowa Branch of the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition Program. “It’s giving people safe using supplies,” said Krauss
Her non-profit works tirelessly to educate drug users and communities through education and advocacy but fentanyl is outpacing everyone.
“It’s scary because there is no regulation to stop it,” Krauss said.
Krauss said there is an important medical purpose for fentanyl but the doctors prescribing it have the right tools. It blocks the pain receptors in your brain. Fentanyl itself is not inherently bad. It does what it is supposed to do, she said.
Those dealing the opioids or other drugs aren’t measuring the amounts of fentanyl in a product like a medical professional would. Krauss said “in an unregulated market all you are going to see is people dying from buying something they thought was something else and a lot of times they are not seeking fentanyl.”
To help reduce harm for those seeking opioids or other drugs, but not fentanyl, the Iowa Harm Coalition distributes fentanyl test strips that can check whether substances are positive for fentanyl. “One line is positive and one line is negative,” said Krauss.
While federally legal the testing strips aren’t just controversial. As of May 4th they are illegal in Iowa and all states except for Arizona, Delaware, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Tennessee, New Mexico, and Alabama because of paraphernalia laws. “I don’t see it as enabling, I see it as trying to keep people healthy and keep people safe and keep people alive,” said Krauss.
Medical experts estimate a minimum of 6.5 grams of cocaine similar in size to two and a half teaspoons of flour can be deadly. For Morphine it’s 200 mg or the size of a basic Advil pill. For fentanyl, just two milligrams about the size of two grains of sugar can be deadly. Kathy Kidd said “the little sugar packets, you can open one of those up and shake it all until you think you have everything out. Just the little residue that’s left, if that was Fentanyl and you put it in your mouth, it could kill you.”
Ruggiero and Krauss agree that perhaps the silver bullet for the fentanyl epidemic is naloxone and the well known manufacturing brand Narcan. Ruggiero said “Narcan is the opioid overdose reversal drug and anyone in Iowa can get this for free.”
Experts say naloxone belongs in the home and in the community. Everyone should carry it not just those with prescription opioids in the home. “Also for businesses anywhere where people are interfacing with the public. This overdose crisis is not going to go away any time soon and we have this great free tool available to us,” said Ruggiero.
Families Against Fentanyl, a national organization, says fentanyl related deaths are now the leading cause of death among Americans ages 18 to 43. It is claiming 64,000 American lives a year or 175 per day. The DEA says in 2021 there were more fentanyl related deaths than gun and auto related deaths combined.
The Kidds are in the process of partnering with local school districts to share Sebastian’s story and refuse to quietly ignore what took their teenage son. Deric said “the easiest thing in the world would be to close our doors and not talk about it but that’s not gonna save any lives.”
“That doesn’t honor him,” Kathy said. “That is not what he would have wanted. That wasn’t him.”
Iowa’s fight against fentanyl is more than an uphill climb but there are organizations refusing to give up. “When we start to think about this as a medical issue it really destigmatizes it and makes us think OK we need to treat this like other chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension or someone that has continued care throughout their life,” said Ruggiero.
Lives saved because of the power behind voices that can no longer speak and their loved ones crying out with warning. “I know it is hard to sit down and have those very raw uncomfortable conversations with your kids. Whether it is friends, sex, drugs whatever it is but you have to sometimes and it is OK to be uncomfortable. It’s OK if somebody gets mad and doesn’t talk that night you know because they are uncomfortable. Hopefully everybody is around the next day and you’ve continued the conversation. Everybody learns and you live,” said Kathy.
For more information and resources available visit the following websites:
Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition at https://www.iowaharmreductioncoalition.org
UCS HEALTHCARE https://www.ucsonline.org/what-we-do/substance-use-disorder
Your Life Iowa https://yourlifeiowa.org