HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Advocates, lawmakers, family and friends gathered at the state Capitol on August 31 to mark International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD). The annual event honors those lost and explores what can be done to save lives.
A memorial was also set up on the steps of the Capitol with pictures, mementos and posters, the names of those who have died and messages from their loved ones. One advocate said this event is exhausting, but necessary to remember the people lost and do better for the ones still here.
“I don’t want anybody to ever have to experience that pain,” said Sarah Laurel, founder of nonprofit Savage Sisters. “We carry those people with us and it ignites the fire within us to keep doing the work.”
Laurel’s organizations provides resources like sober living and harm reduction measures to people struggling with substance use disorders. Laurel said this work is personal in more than one way: She is in recovery herself, and she knows the pain of loss firsthand.
“My partner died in my arms in 2019 from a fentanyl overdose,” she said. “My cousin intentionally overdosed.”
On Wednesday, she joined others with a similar story at the Capitol to mark IOAD.
“We all share a common bond,” Lisa Sokoloff said.
Sokoloff lost her son Greg in 2018. She said he had previously struggled with addiction but had just gotten out of treatment.
“[He] thought he was taking a Percocet for pain and it was pure carfentanil,” Sokoloff said.
It was a shock for her, especially as an anesthesiologist.
“I give fentanyl every day, all day in the operating room, and I never in a million years thought my son would be a victim of this horrible epidemic,” she said.
That shock and grief is all too familiar for Deborah Howland, whose daughter Ava died five years ago.
“It was probably the most horrific thing I ever heard in my life,” Howland said. “She was my only child. She was creative, she was funny, she was beautiful.”
Howland threw herself into advocacy work after Ava died and worked through the justice system to get justice for her. She now helps other families do the same.
This memorial and this day is not just to remember; however, it is also about raising awareness.
“It is no longer an opioid epidemic, it is a public health crisis,” Laurel said.
She explained that drugs like xylazine, an opioid epidemic, are taking over the drug supply. Xylazine is not an opioid so Laurel said overdose reversal methods and treatments need to be updated.
Laurel also said the system is failing people who need it, like Greg and Ava did.
“We do not have low-barrier access to treatment,” she said.
Laurel added, that more people like her who have lived through this need to be part of making decisions at the highest levels.
“We deserve a seat at the table. I’m very sick and tired of people telling us how to recover,” she said.
Howland agrees, adding more people need to know about the problem.
“The more people who know, the more lives we can save,” she said. “We need to help humanity because this is a really ugly situation.”
In June, the Department of Health added Xylazine to the list of Schedule III drugs in Pennsylvania.