Last summer, I wrote a story on the rise of heroin and methamphetamine use in Cuyahoga Falls. In the story, I reported there had been nine heroin overdoses reported in the city as of Aug. 12, two of them ending in death.
Maureen Schmidt of Cuyahoga Falls emailed me shortly after the story was printed and thanked me for writing it and asked if more could be written.
"My son Zachary was one of the fatalities," Schmidt wrote. She said Zachary had overdosed five times before he died at the age of 21.
Schmidt said she wanted me to share her story to bring more awareness to the dangers of heroin.
"My life has been forever changed ever since this horrible drug made its way into my family," she said, adding she has another family member struggling with heroin addiction. "It is so frustrating for the friends and families because all we can do is watch the addiction destroy lives."
Zachary was in the process of quitting drugs and getting into a program to get his high school diploma and a job when he overdosed for the last time on Jan. 11, 2012, according to his mother. He died eight days later.
"He was in an outpatient program and wanted to change his life," Schmidt said. "He cried many times because even with medical insurance it was difficult to find resources to help. It is even more difficult when there is no insurance."
Schmidt said it takes time to get admitted into a rehabilitation center.
"The wait time … is ridiculous," she said. "I remember Zachary being told that he had a 16-week wait for a bed at a facility in this area. I remember telling my friend that Zachary would be dead before that 16 weeks was up, and he was." Because of the wait and what their insurance would cover, Zachary entered the outpatient program rather than getting on the waiting list for the inpatient program.
She said it's important to make parents aware of what she calls an "epidemic" in this country.
"Ever since Zachary has passed away I have wanted … to make a difference and not let Zachary's death be in vain," she wrote in her email. "I know that a lot of the people that came to Zachary's memorial service use heroin. The sad thing is that even though they watched their friend die, it is still not enough to stop them from using. I have heard some of the kids have gotten clean after his death, but only a few."
"We need to do something about this in our country, not just in Cuyahoga Falls," she wrote to me. "It breaks my heart to know that other families will experience the same pain that my family is experiencing, that another young person will lose their life to this horrible addiction. I want to make a difference."
On Jan. 19, Schmidt marked the one-year anniversary of Zachary's death with a memorial service and balloon release at the Christmas Box Angel of Hope Children's Memorial in Stow Silver Springs Cemetery. In a telephone conversation, she said it was windy that day. About 40 people attended the ceremony, which started at 1 p.m.
Due to emotions, Schmidt was unable to speak at her son's funeral, but this time she was "bound and determined" to pay him tribute.
"I have done a lot of thinking this last year," Schmidt told the crowd. "I remember hearing one time that we are to find reasons to be thankful in every situation. This was extremely difficult for me at first. I thought, 'What is there to be thankful for, my son has died.' I thought about it for a while and found that I was blessed to have had Zachary for 21 years and that I was with him when he took his first breath and I was with him when he took his last breath. We all have to remember that we need to cherish the time we have with our children because they are not ours to keep, they are God's children and they are only on loan to us."
In addition to Schmidt's remarks, Zachary's sister read a poem she wrote and several of his friends told stories, Schmidt said. Afterward, everyone went to Mandarin House Chinese restaurant, a family favorite where the owner named one of his live fish after Zachary.
"It was nice," Schmidt said. "It was a good day for healing for all of us, for reflecting on how life has been different."
When Zachary was in intensive care, at first Schmidt didn't want his friends to see him. She said she was angry with his friends the first night. She took pictures of her son in the hospital bed with the hope he would come out of it and she could show them to him.
"I get angry," she said, "That's one drug I absolutely hate. It destroys a lot of people."
When she realized he wasn't going to make it this time, she told his friends they could, and should, come and see him in the hospital. "I told them, 'Every one of you needs to come in and see -- this is where you end up." After she made the decision to have her son taken off of life support, she had the photos she took of him posted on a Facebook page called "I Hate Heroin."
A few friends have stopped doing heroin, she said, but most of them have not. None of them believe that what happened to Zachary is going to happen to them.
Some think a person has to hit rock bottom before anyone can help them. Schmidt has a different thought.
"I've learned with heroin addiction, there is no rock bottom," she said. "Rock bottom for a heroin addict is where Zachary's at -- it's death." She said the addict's physical need for heroin outweighs any fear of death.
"There was a lot of stress leading up to the anniversary of Zachary's death," she said. "Knowing it was coming and planning the service. He died two weeks before his birthday, so there was that milestone coming up, too."
While talking to Schmidt by phone earlier this month, she said she felt better than she had in a while.
"I feel different," she said. "My arms … I physically ached to hold him. I don't feel that now. I don't know -- after all the holidays, the anniversary, the birthday my stress level came down. They say following a death you'll see a new life emerge; you will see things differently."
Mrs. Schmidt said she doesn't blame the man Zachary was with when he overdosed for the last time. She said he was recently arrested on drug charges.
"I told him prison could save his life," she said.