Don Willey spoke during the Midwest LiUNA Region’s ‘Combating Opioid Abuse’ conference
By SHERI GASSAWAY
Drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, and opioid addiction is driving the epidemic.
In 2014, 47,055 lethal drug overdoses were reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention; 18,893 of those deaths were related to prescription pain relievers and 10,574 were related to heroin.
Today, deaths related to opioids still remain an epidemic – one Don Willey has experienced on a personal level. Willey, the business manager for Laborers Local 110, lost his 36-year-old son, Matt, to a heroin overdose on March 29. The very next day, Willey’s 26-year nephew died from the same thing.
Willey shared his story during a “Combating Opioid Abuse and Drug Free Workplace Conference” recently sponsored by the LiUNA Midwest Region. The two-day event was held at River City Hotel in South St. Louis County.
During his emotional speech, Willey explained that his son had the classic addictive personality, and after four or five years of alcohol and pot use, he turned to heroin. He said Matt had been through a number of treatment programs throughout the years, but nothing worked.
AS A PARENT, YOU FEEL GUILTY
“As a parent, you feel guilty,” Willey said. “I’d meet with him every couple weeks just to try to access the situation, and he was always wanting money or something. The boy could just weigh you down. Dealing with an addict is like fighting with an octopus under water.”
Willey first learned of his son’s overdose a week before he died. A chaplain in St. Louis University Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit had called him with the news. Matt had gone at least 15 to 20 minutes without oxygen to the brain before the paramedics arrived.
“The last seven days were spent saying goodbye and assuring the doctors he would not want to be on life support,” Willey said with tears in his eyes. “After last rites, Matt breathed on his own for seven hours, and the morphine used could have put down an elephant. Matt’s mother and I had to make that choice.”
ANOTHER RELATIVE LOST TO HEROIN
The night before Matt died, one of his cousins, Sam, came by to say goodbye. Willey said he knew Sam was addicted to heroin as well and feared that Matt got the 26-year-old addicted to the drug. He said Sam assured him that Matt was not responsible for his addiction.
“Before he left, I told Sam, ‘Don’t take this as goodbye, and don’t honor Matt’s death by doing something stupid’,” Willey said. “The morning after Matt’s passing, I got a call that Sam had died of a heroin overdose on his mother’s couch.”
Willey thanked everyone for attending the conference and for having the courage to fight the stigma of addiction and mental illness.
“This drug is extremely powerful,” Willey said. “It replaces your Id, it becomes your whole life. You don’t care about your kids, you don’t care about hunger, sex or anything other than your next fix.”
Angie Taylor, director of the Midwest Region Laborers' Health and Safety Fund, said Willey contacted her last spring and asked her, “What are we doing about heroin addiction?” That put the ball in motion, which led to the conference.
Jamie Becker, director of health promotion for the LiUNA Health & Safety Fund of North America, said that it is important to note that addiction is a chronic disease; no one sets out to be addicted.
“People don’t choose to have cancer or depression, and they certainly don’t choose to have addiction,” she said. “It’s a problem in our industry because many of our members have pain because of the work.”
Attendees heard from a panel of experts on the topic of opioid and heroin addiction and treatments. Guests included experts from the ARCHway Institute, Bridgeway Behaviorial Health, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and the United Way of Greater St. Louis.
LiUNA members can reach out to their local Health and Welfare Fund or Member Assistance Program coordinators to review if there is substance abuse coverage and the extent of the benefit. Additional resources can be found at na.org and facesandvoicesofrecovery.org.