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Grieving families fight heroin epidemic as deaths reach all-time high

Parents of addicts are becoming social activists to help save other kids.

Valerie Fiore, with husband Cris and son Nic, lost oldest son Anthony to heroin. ALEJANDRO A.ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Valerie Fiore, with husband Cris and son Nic, lost oldest son Anthony to heroin. ALEJANDRO A.ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHERRead more

CRIS FIORE sat down to write the eulogy for his 24-year-old son.

He could say that Anthony died accidentally.

Or suddenly. Or too young.

All true.

Instead, Fiore spoke of the demon that killed his first-born.

"He loved candy.

He loved his car.

He loved his brother.

He loved his mother.

He loved the Lord.

And he loved heroin.

Lord how he loved heroin. And because he loved heroin so much and because he thought it loved him back, he'll never get to take his brother to the Eminem and Rihanna concert this August. He'll never get to enjoy the case of Sour Patch Kids candy he ordered and that was delivered two days after he died. He won't get to train Caesar, the boxer puppy he bought from a breeder in Oklahoma just two weeks ago. And for the first time in years, there's plenty of recording capacity on the DVR."

America is in the throes of a heroin epidemic, and it is killing people in Philadelphia in record numbers.

Last year, 629 people died from drug overdoses, according to preliminary statistics from the city's Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. That's up almost 35 percent from 2013 when 467 died. Toxicology tests show that heroin was detected in the majority of deaths.

Forty-four years after President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, parents across the country are in hand-to-hand combat in their own hellish war against heroin, the drug they call "the monster."

With an explosion in addiction to prescription opiate pain medications, like OxyContin and Percocet, addicts are switching to heroin because it's cheaper and more potent.

One 30-milligram OxyContin pill sells on the street for $20 to $30. Heroin sells for $10 a bag.

Teens once frightened of needles shoot up in any vein they can find to chase the euphoria of the first high - and too often it is their last.

Years ago, many parents who lost their children to drugs sort of lost themselves. Out of shame, they rarely spoke of what killed their sons and daughters, let alone write raw and honest obituaries describing their deaths, sometimes on cold tile bathroom floors with needles in their arms.

Now a bevy of parents, siblings and relatives in Philadelphia and the suburbs have become social activists in a cry for "No More."

Taking action

Heroin is not just a city problem. In Warrington, Bucks County, Fiore has gathered more than 27,000 signatures for Anthony's Act, which would amend the Affordable Care Act to provide a minimum of 90 days of in-patient treatment instead of the standard 28 days, a time that experts argue is not long enough to beat heroin.

Fiore's wife, Valerie, talks to people in rehab centers battling addiction and shows them a color photo of her son's grave where she planted daisies and stuck an Eagles flag in the dirt.

In Quakertown, Tara Lawley-Bergey is setting up a drug prevention, education and support website after her 25-year-old brother, Derik, overdosed on heroin in a drug house in Kensington on May 7. Someone dumped his limp body in a narrow, deserted alley.

"The ultimate goal is to change the stigma of an addict in suburban communities, one person at a time," Bergey said. "Many families think, 'Not my household. Not my family.' But in reality it is reaching the quietest of towns, the brightest youth."

Carol Rostucher of Rhawnhurst has arranged training for at least 40 parents to use Naloxone, or Narcan, a heroin overdose antidote, to bring people back from the brink. Dozens of parents in Philadelphia and the suburbs keep the rescue kits on hand so they can jump in before cops or first responders arrive.

"Narcan gives them one more chance. Paramedics brought my son back twice with Narcan," Rostucher said.

"Without it, he wouldn't be here."

Rostucher in February launched "Angels in Motion," an outreach group to help those struggling with addiction, shortly after the Daily News wrote about her plight. It is now 600-members strong. Rostucher and about 25 other parents routinely take sandwiches, snacks, water and toiletries to Kensington Avenue, the drug world's Ground Zero.

Every week, parents show her photos of their sons or daughters and ask if she's seen them. She often has.

The heroin sick amble up and around the avenue, especially in the early morning, trapped in a purgatory of self-loathing until their next $10 bag. Dozens have come to know and trust Rostucher.

Some newbies look like preppy college students with stylish hair cuts, crisp, clean clothes, cellphones and back packs. No one would know they were on dope except for their glassy, faraway, slow-blinking eyes.

The old-timers are often bone-thin and hungry, with battered shoes, soiled, ripped clothes and greasy, uncombed hair. They've lost their IDs and usually have no cellphones because they sold them. Their bed is often a trash-strewn floor inside what they call an "abandominium."

Rostucher's 25-year-old son, Drew, used to be out here.

He's been in recovery out of state for more than 100 days. They speak every day.

Along Kensington Avenue, she tells people all about Drew. She shows them before photos of Drew in a madman, heroin haze, and now, sober, handsome, fit and clear-eyed.

She's pulled about 10 more people from the streets, and they are currently in treatment.

She knows they may be back.

"I always say, 'In recovery, encourage everything. Expect nothing.' "

Mom wants to die

Ever since Anthony Fiore died, his mom doesn't want to live.

"I wanted to die so I could be with my son," said Valerie Fiore, sitting across from her husband at her dining room table. "The only reason I'm not dead is because I have another son. But if I didn't, I don't think I'd be here."

She glanced at her husband, Cris.

"He knows that," she told a reporter.

"My mission is to save lives so my son didn't die in vain," she said. "I know the deepest abyss of pain and despair that a person can endure is the death of a child."

Anthony was a smart kid who breezed through Central Bucks South with straight A's. He started using marijuana, then OxyContin before he switched to heroin while at Penn State University.

When he was home, he went to Kensington to buy dope. He then returned to shoot up in the comfy basement while his parents slept upstairs.

He went to short-term rehab three times. His mom begged treatment centers to take him longer than 20-something days. They wouldn't.

Beginning in the fall of 2013, Anthony's parents thought he had been clean for about eight months. He landed a job as a salesman for an organic wholesale food business.

"He started hanging out again with his younger brother," his mom said.

They went out for ice cream and saw movies. He worked out at the gym and bought a puppy.

In May 2014, he was still on probation on a theft case and received a letter from his probation officer that she would meet him the following Thursday when he'd be drug tested.

It was Friday night, May 30, 2014.

"We think Anthony decided to get high one more time," his mom said.

"I got up at 5 or 5:30 in the morning Saturday, and the TV in the basement is really loud. I open the door and Anthony is sleeping on the couch," his dad said. "I thought he was sleeping."

His friend was standing up. "Isn't the TV a little loud?" Fiore asked him. His friend apologized and turned it down.

Valerie Fiore got up at about 9:30 and was surprised to see Anthony's car because she thought he'd be at work.

"I never thought to check on him, because he'd been clean eight months," she said. "I started helping my neighbor plant flowers and to this day I blame myself that I didn't check on him earlier."

Around noon, she opened the basement door and saw Anthony still laying on the couch. She got frightened. He had overdosed the year before in the basement. Medics brought Narcan and saved him.

"I looked at his chest, and it wasn't going up and down. I ran down and I smacked him in the face. He wasn't breathing," she said.

She asked Anthony's friend what happened. He said he didn't know.

She screamed for her husband and called 9-1-1. Cris tried to give Anthony CPR.

Police and medics arrived. They shocked him with defibrillator paddles. His body was cold and stiff.

"The day after he died, we decided this had to count for something. This had to mean something," Cris said.

"We started with his obituary," he said.

He posted it on Facebook. It has been shared more than 10,000 times.

A 23-year-old North Carolina woman who read it contacted him.

"Your son died on my birthday," she told him. She'd been addicted to heroin since she was 17 and was worried she could never stop.

"Anthony's eulogy was my breaking point," she told him. The two spoke, and she has been drug free for a year.

Another young woman, a classmate of Anthony's, had heard Fiore deliver the eulogy at Warrington Fellowship Church. She overdosed and died a few months ago.

The Fiores went to her funeral.

'I'm dead inside'

If only.

That's what Cris Fiore says every day.

If only Anthony had at least a 90-day stay in drug treatment.

"The 28-day model of treatment embraced by the insurance industry has no basis in science," Fiore said.

"A person gets medically detoxed to the point that they're not shaking and sick," he said. "But they don't have time to learn to break away and have the life skills to live without heroin.

"I believe Anthony would be alive if he'd been in a 90-day residential drug rehab center."

Fiore is trying to find a legislator to either sponsor a bill that would amend the Affordable Care Act or introduce a stand-alone bill. He's sent about 100 letters to senators and representatives.

Experts in the drug field support the concept.

"Treatment doesn't begin to have an impact until 90 days of continuous care," said Roland Lamb, director of the city's Office of Addiction Services for the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services.

"There is no clinical rationale for 28 days," he said.

Fiore has more time to focus on Anthony's Act because he lost his job as a paralegal four months after Anthony died.

"They told him he wasn't focusing," his wife said. "He told me 'How can I focus on people fighting over a property line? We lost our son.' "

Valerie Fiore tries to save lives one at a time - face to face.

Her eyes are haunted, forever sad and wounded.

When she speaks to people in treatment, she holds up a large color photo of Anthony.

"I'm Anthony's mom," she starts. "I want you to know what you leave behind when you pass away . . . I'm am empty shell. I'm dead inside."

She made posters of faces of those who died from the drug she calls "the monster" and marched at the Fed Up! rally, an annual event in D.C., in September.

She drove two hours to talk with an 18-year-old New Jersey man battling heroin addiction. She didn't know him. His family had reached out to her on Facebook. He's now home and sober.

She has made 50 wooden crosses out of 18-inch gardening sticks with names of people who lost their lives to heroin.

"It brings awareness to how many people are dying. I want to put them someplace like out on a road or highway where you can see them," she said. So far she hasn't found a home for them.

"No one wants to get involved," she said. "But the names keep pouring in."

She has five names on each cross. "I have to take a break from it though," she said. "It's heartbreaking."

Cris Fiore said his wife has grown stronger, but still has days she doesn't want to get out of bed.

"She goes through all four stages of grief every day. It's good when she's committed to this speaking. She focuses on that, and it gives her strength but it also wipes her out."

Together, the Fiores sat in Anthony's room that doesn't quite look the same. The wooden crosses are propped up neatly against one entire wall. A friend made her a bedspread out of Anthony's T-shirts.

Most nights, Valerie Fiore sleeps here.

"I feel closer to him here," she said. "My son's death is on my mind 24/7. It's always there. It never goes away. I go to bed and cry every night and I wake up with him first thing on my mind."

"They say there's a before and an after. I'm not the same person."

The "after" for the Fiores is that, however difficult, they will never walk away from their mission.

"People look at addiction as a moral weakness. It's not," Cris Fiore said. "We want people struggling with addiction - either themselves or their families - to not be shameful.

"We need to stop hiding from it. That's the only way we can save lives."