Earlier this year, we were grieving the loss of basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter after a tragic helicopter crash and also debating what to do about the city’s opioid crisis.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and knocked both those topics out of the headlines. But it’s not as if the opioid crisis let up any. Most of us don’t pay attention to it — until it affects one of our loved ones.

Take Julie Davis. For years, the 48-year-old cook had watched helplessly as her daughter struggled with drug addiction. She braced herself for the day she got word that her drug-addicted daughter had succumbed to an overdose. Still, when that day finally arrived on July 16, Davis collapsed with grief.

A month later, she still is having trouble sleeping and eating because of it all. But as grandmothers everywhere do all the time, she puts on a smile. Davis has no other choice because her daughter, Jolieen Fields, 32, left behind a 2-week-old and a 4-year-old whom Davis now is raising.

Joleah Tucker, the 4-year-old daughter of Jolieen Fields, talks about her late mother, on Aug. 18, 2020.
BASTIAAN SLABBERS / For the Inquirer
Joleah Tucker, the 4-year-old daughter of Jolieen Fields, talks about her late mother, on Aug. 18, 2020.

The experience of losing her oldest child has given her a new purpose — one that goes even beyond raising her grandchildren.

“I just want to bring awareness to our community because my daughter struggled so long with this disease,” Davis told me last week. “We need to stop these people that are selling these bad Percocets that’s killing our kids.”

“Nobody’s making no noise about this,” she added. “It’s just being brushed under the rug and our children are dying.”

She is referring to fake prescription painkillers laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid similar to morphine that is 50 to 100 times more potent but less expensive than the real thing.

“This is not a new phenomenon,” said Patrick Trainor, a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Philadelphia office. “The problem is increasing, but it has been a problem for a few years now. Fentanyl is cheaper and it’s much, much more powerful.”

A family member shows a photo of Jolieen Fields on a phone, on Aug. 18, 2020.
BASTIAAN SLABBERS / For the Inquirer
A family member shows a photo of Jolieen Fields on a phone, on Aug. 18, 2020.

In Philadelphia — which has the worst opioid death rate of any major city — 1,150 people died from drug overdoses last year. In nearly 900 of those cases, fentanyl was a factor. A decade ago, fentanyl was involved in less than 10% of drug overdose deaths.

“Pretty much anybody who takes a substance can be at risk due to fentanyl being contaminated into other substances,” pointed out Destinie Campanella, a harm-reduction specialist for the city’s health department who teaches users and others how to protect themselves.

Campanella teaches free virtual courses showing how to use and obtain naloxone — also known as Narcan — to reverse overdoses. She walks participants through the process of getting the drug. Users and first responders can get it mailed to them. I took the class in 2018 partly for research but also because I want to be able to help. If you love a user, you should take it, as well.

It’s too late for Fields.

The day she died, she had a headache and was feeling dizzy. She reportedly asked an acquaintance who lives at Germantown Avenue and Cayuga Street if she could sit down and rest on his property. When he turned to get her some water, Fields collapsed. Authorities pronounced her dead at the scene.

Davis’ son delivered the sad news that Davis had been preparing herself to hear for years. It’s never easy to lose a child.

But even as she processes her grief, Davis has discovered a newfound determination to try to help others.

“I didn’t know what my purpose was. But when my daughter passed away, I realized that this is my purpose,” Davis told me. “I was sitting and it just came.”

“I need people to know her story so that another young woman would be here to raise her children,” she said. “Her story needs to be told. Maybe I can save at least one person.”