Startling Increase in Heroin Overdose Deaths in the Ozarks

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Heroin claims the lives of thousands of people each year who overdose on the addictive drug, for many different reasons.

For hours at a time, Cindi Byersmith finds herself drawing a peaceful getaway to help her leave a dark reality behind.

“I’ve done hummingbirds, right now, I’m working on a piece that is going to a butterfly on a flower.”

Its a reality she thought she was running from years ago.   “I’m from the east coast and the drugs were so horrible where we were that I thought well I will get away from it all. We moved out here thinking Midwest its slow pace, I won’t have to worry about all that. That obviously wasn’t the case.”

Cindi’s son, Craig, fought a life of addiction for seven years before eventually dying one January night in 2014. From there, her battle to help him quickly turned to a battle to help others.

A year after Craig’s death, Cindi found peace with a pencil and paper and an art studio called Love You to Heaven and Back.

“Its something I love and its something I shared with Craig because he loved to draw too,” she says.

Cindi, like so many other parents, buried her 20 year old son after he died while high on heroin.

“Craig did everything. If you asked him what his drug of choice was, he would tell you whatever I can get my hands on.”

Over the last three decades, heroin has swept across the country.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since the beginning of the 21st century, the heroin overdose rate has increased by 137 percent.

“That’s the problem. You use the same amount today as you did yesterday and its twice as pure, it kills you,” says a Springfield police Lieutenant, who investigates drug cases.

In the Ozarks, the numbers broken down are even more startling.

The number of deaths where heroin was the primary cause increased from one in 2013 to seven in 2014 to 13 last year and four already this year.

“I don’t know if its a quiet epidemic anymore. It started out very quiet but there’s been so much of it,” Byersmith says.

“I think its become a louder epidemic but the problem is that its out there people talk about it but only if its touched them.”

“A lot of these patients, we’ve picked them up in different areas of town,” says Grant Trimbell, a paramedic with Mercy EMS. “We’ve came across them in cars in parking lots, middle of the afternoon in a busy parking lot, we’ve found them unconscious in their cars.”

But the most populous county in the Ozarks is second to Pulaski County. Missouri who had 10 deaths each in 2013 and 2014 but dropped to only 3 in 2015.

“Heroin is one of those things of you don’t know how strong its going to be. Its made somewhere that is obviously not regulated at all,” Trimble says.

Trimbell drives the streets of Greene County and says time is everything when they get the initial call. 

“We have the medication, we have to the tools necessary that we can treat but the thing is we have to get to the patients quickly.”

Trimbell says heroin doesn’t stick to the city streets, its found in the rural parts of southwest Missouri along county roads as well.

Springfield police say different types of heroin are being taken off the streets and its either more pure or mixed with what could be a deadly combination.

“People are either new users or they don’t know how much to take or they’re buying from different dealers and the heroin hasn’t been cut as much.”

Trimbell says when paramedics respond to overdose calls, it can turn into a sticky situation.

“While all of this is going on, in a sense, we are watching our backs cause some of these scenes can be unsafe and we have to make sure that nothing is going on behind our backs that we are not realizing.”

Other times there’s no one at the scene because fellow users often run, fearing police and paramedics and there’s no on left to call 9-1-1, Trimble says. 

“Anybody that is there with the patient, call. A lot of people are afraid to call, if they are there with them or using with them.”

“There was a parent in the house who stood and watched my son die and did absolutely nothing,” Byersmith says.

But its too late to question what could have been. “Nobody wants this to be a reality but ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Its still there, its still going to do the same thing.”

So  instead, Byersmith will just keep talking and putting her memories on canvas for all to see.

“I’m so afraid that if I stop talking about him, people will forget about him and I don’t want to forget. He was a part of my life, I want him to be remembered. I just wanted to help him. All moms want to fix their babies and I couldn’t fix him. It was really difficult at first to feel so helpless.”

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