Drug overdoses, deaths continuing Volusia-Flagler problem
Nikki Ross @NikkiRossNJ
Feb 13, 2020 at 12:03 PM
The number of drug overdoses and deaths in Volusia and Flagler Counties continues to be a problem.
When asked how many people she’s lost to a drug overdose, 31-year-old Amber Kelley-Wilmath couldn’t give a definite number.
Out of everyone she’s met in recovery — which for her began in 2017 — in addition to her high school and childhood friends, her best guess is more than 40.
“I’ve known so many people who have died, it’s crazy,” Kelley-Wilmath said. “There was a time, almost everyday [for] two weeks in a row we lost somebody.”
In Volusia County, 144 people died of an overdose in 2019, according to preliminary data provided by the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office, representing a nearly 13% decrease from the 165 deaths in 2018.
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, there were 70,237 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2017, the most recent year data is available. Almost 68% of those were caused by opioids.
But while Volusia County has seen a decrease in the number of overdose deaths, the number of overdoses increased from 723 in 2018 to 763 in 2019, according to the sheriff’s office.
While Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said the decrease in local overdose deaths is a move in the right direction, the increase in overdoses in general proves that the county is still in the throes of a major drug epidemic.
“I’d like to think that there’s more awareness and maybe treatment is becoming more of an option for people,” Chitwood said. “I think Narcan and education and treatment has helped decrease the deaths but I would not tell you that we are seeing a turnaround.”
Narcan, the brand name for naloxone, is an emergency treatment for opioid overdoses. Generic versions cost anywhere from $20 to $40 while Narcan itself costs $130-$140.
In Volusia County, the vast majority of Narcan is administered by EMS and fire rescue crews. In 2018, the most recent data released by these entities, 733 doses of Narcan were given, an amount that can cost anywhere from $14,600 to $102,620. However, much of the Narcan used by emergency responders is paid for by grants.
“We are part of any task force available for fighting opioids, we will continue to fight heroin and fentanyl from coming in, we will continue to push for Narcan for first responders and we will continue educating and working with rehabilitation facilities,” Chitwood said.
Kelley-Wilmath said of her friends who fatally overdosed, many started their addiction with prescription opioids. And when they weren't able to get opioids, they turned to harder drugs. Just 5% of the overdoses in Volusia County in 2019 were from opioid pills while 35% were from heroin and 10% were from fentanyl.
Meanwhile in Flagler County, 14 people died of an overdose in 2019, more than double the six deaths from 2018, according to data provided by the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office. But the number of nonfatal overdoses decreased from 62 in 2018 to 57 in 2019.
“We are following all narcotics leads and tips to try to shut down as many drug dealers as possible,” said Brittany Kershaw, public affairs manager for the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office. “All deputies are also equipped with Narcan.”
Kiley Hartzell is the clinical nurse manager of the behavioral health unit at AdventHealth DeLand. She said that while society as a whole is making it harder to obtain opioids in the first place by limiting access, not enough is being done on the back end to help those already addicted and those who have turned to other drugs.
“There’s not a lot of places and beds available for help,” she said. “Detox is only the first step, residential and long-term treatment costs money. But patients [on] their end may not have insurance, family or financial support. We’re not making it as easy as we could or should to get them the help they need.”
For Kelley-Wilmath, losing a friend to an overdose would push her further into addiction.
“Before recovery, the death of my friends or family was a trigger for me to get high,” she said. “I remember a couple of my friends dying and every time, all of us would be at a house, everybody would be more generous with their drugs and we would just get really high.”
In fact, the death of her mom’s fiance in a motorcycle accident, the death of her cousin from a shooting and the death of her best friend by suicide — which all happened during her teenage years in Deltona— are what pulled her into addiction in the first place.
“I was just drinking really bad and then after my best friend killed himself, that was like my huge turning point,” Kelley-Wilmath said. “My boyfriend gave me my first (opioid) pill when I was 14 or 15 and it just became a weekend-type deal.”
But what started as a “weekend-type deal” turned into a full-blown addiction by the time Kelley-Wilmath was 19 years old.
“I didn’t realize how much of a grip it was going to have on me and the rest of my life,” she said.
Kelley-Wilmath’s addiction accelerated when she found she could easily obtain a prescription for hundreds of opioids during a single appointment at some of Florida’s “pill mills” — doctors’ offices that operated from the 1990s to the late 2000s that only signed prescriptions and moved patients to onsite pharmacies to buy oxycodone and other narcotics at $10 a pill, cash-only.
“It was so easy, Florida had so many dirty doctors,” Kelley-Wilmath said. “You could bring in any paper with a prescription scrib record and they would give you hundreds. That was the worst thing that happened to all of us — going to those damn pill doctors.”
It wasn’t until 2011 that the tide began to turn against Florida’s “pill mills.” Republican Gov. Rick Scott voiced his opposition and agreed to a state narcotics tracking system while Republican attorney general Pam Bondi made shutting the pill mills down her top priority. Meanwhile, the Legislature tightened the state’s drug laws, banning doctors and clinics from dispensing opioids onsite and setting limits on the number of pills patients could receive.
By 2014, the number of pain treatment clinics fell from 921 to just 371. But by then, a full-on opioid crisis had infiltrated the state.
According to data collected by The Washington Post from the Drug Enforcement Administration's database, from 2006 to 2014 over 6.8 billion prescription pain pills — hydrocodone and oxycodone — were supplied to Florida, many of which were supplying the state’s “pill mills.”
Of those, nearly 229 million were brought to Volusia County, according to the data. That’s enough for 51 pills per person, per year. In Flagler County, over 34 million were brought in, enough for 41 pills per person per year.
“We would sell half and do half. That’s how we would pay our rent,” Kelley-Wilmath said. “We didn’t work — nobody worked, you know — so we were hanging out every day. Then I ended up getting pregnant.”
Pregnant and incarcerated
When she was 21, Kelley-Wilmath spent her first night in jail after she was caught shoplifting nice clothes for her boyfriend to wear to her great-grandmother’s funeral.
“I got shamed by my family and saw my mom change towards me,” she said. “I had to pick him or my family because they wanted nothing to do with him.”
After her daughter was born, when Kelley-Wilmath was just 22 years old, she ended up going to jail on charges associated with selling opioids. She sold pills for jewelry and then she took the jewelry to a Cash 4 Gold. But unbeknownst to her, the jewelry was stolen. When she went to jail, her daughter was placed with her mom, where she remains today.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 85% of the United States’ prison population has a substance abuse disorder or is incarcerated for a crime involving drugs or drug use. The institute also reported that inmates with an opioid disorder are at a higher risk for overdose following their release.
Hartzell said addicts who get clean, whether through a detox, residential program or forced sobriety in jail, find it hard to stay clean when they return to the same environment.
“When they’ve been clean and they get out and they relapse or overdose, they think they can use the same amounts [of drugs] as they did before,” Hartzell said. “Or they are using other relapse-prevention medications that prevent them from getting the same feeling from the drug so they use more and more till they overdose or die, unfortunately.”
While in jail, Kelley-Wilmath learned she was pregnant with her son. In 2011, on her due date, Wilmath was sentenced to prison for a year and a half. She wasn’t released until September 2012.
She gave birth to her son during the first few weeks of her prison sentence — in a hospital shackled to the bed with no family members allowed. Her son was taken that same night and placed with her father.
“That was probably the second worst thing to happen to me in my life,” she said with tears. “You go back to jail after that and they segregate you, so now being hormonal and knowing you won’t see your baby for a year. They try to make the experience as hard as it can be.”
While the number of pregnant women in prison, the outcomes of their pregnancies and the way they are treated hasn’t historically been tracked, the PIPS Project, started by ARRWIP — a group of researchers at Johns Hopkins University examining the intersections of reproductive wellness and the criminal legal system — created the first sample collection of data on the number of pregnant women in prison and the outcomes of those pregnancies. The data came from 22 state prisons, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, six jails and three detention centers.
According to that data, which was collected from 2016 to 2017, 4% of the prison population came in pregnant. Of the 1,396 pregnancies the project tracked, there were 753 live births, 46 miscarriages, 11 abortions, four still births and two ectopic pregnancies. The care received before, during and after pregnancy wasn’t tracked in this data collection.
Kelley-Wilmath, whose son was born healthy, had to wait until two months after his birth to receive a photo of him or get a phone call to check on his well-being since in the interim she was transferred to the prison where she carried out her sentence.
“When I finally got pictures, I remember breaking down so bad I just couldn’t stop crying,” she said. “When I finally got a phone call and heard that baby cry I promised myself when I got out, I would never get high again.”
And for two years she stuck to her promise. After her release, she moved in with her father and step-mom who were fostering her son. They were fostering through the Department of Children and Families and were receiving state funding. By the time Kelley-Wilmath got out of prison, she already owed months of child support — more than $2,000 — to pay back the money the state gave her family.
Since she was a felon with no transportation, no license and no job, she made the tough decision to close the custody case because she couldn’t afford the continued payments. She still owes money for the time she was in prison, $300 a month, and it’s increased due to late fees. But closing the case gave her father and step-mother full custody of her son, which they still have today.
Shortly after closing the custody case, she moved out of her father’s house because of issues with her step-mother. Then, when her children’s father was released from jail, she relapsed.
“It was weeks after he was out and I already depleted my bank account,” she said. “I just started shooting up heroin.”
She wound up in and out of jail starting in 2014 for violating probation and not paying her supervision fees. She ended up back in prison for four months.
Between 2014 and 2017, Kelley-Wilmath said the details of her life were foggy, but what she does know is this:
From heroin she spiraled into meth. She was abused by men. She was homeless. She had an abortion. Her depression kicked into full gear. She started self-harming.
“I didn’t have a phone anymore, I didn’t have contact with my family, I wasn’t around my kids anymore,” Kelley-Wilmath said. “I completely lost all hope. I was completely out of my mind.”
Finding her footing
In May of 2017, with the help of her mother whom she’d reconnected with, Kelley-Wilmath detoxed and spent a full year at Avenues 12, a recovery house in Daytona Beach. She got a job working for her recovery house and another at a local coffee shop.
“If I didn’t have my family support ... ” she said as tears began to flow. “I feel so bad for the people in addiction who go through it on their own.”
But in 2018 Kelley-Wilmath moved in with her new boyfriend, who was also in recovery. She stopped going to meetings and lost contact with her support systems.
“When I moved in with him, that was probably one of my biggest regrets I have in my recovery,” she said. “I didn’t have that every day sober-living environment and I had somebody else who was an addict with his struggles with addiction.”
She became pregnant with her third child. During her pregnancy, her boyfriend and his friend, who was sleeping on their couch, both relapsed and were getting high every day. Eventually, Kelley-Wilmath, nearly halfway through her pregnancy, gave into the temptation.
“It was in my face and I cracked,” she said. “I had given up my fellowship and my meetings. I had just left everything that I was so happy with and then I realized that I wasn’t happy at all anymore.”
According to Hartzell, developing a support system is the foundation to a successful recovery. But the loss of that support system can be a catalyst for relapse.
“Another issue is if it hasn’t been enough time to learn coping skills and train the brain and body to be prepared for triggers,” Hartzell said. “But sometimes all of the tools they need aren’t available.”
So Kelley-Wilmath, again with the help of her mother, moved out and into an apartment of her own in Daytona Beach. Eventually her boyfriend got clean again and moved in with her. They started their own landscaping business and were making enough money to be comfortable. They got married. She gave birth to her third child, a beautiful baby girl.
But in November of 2019, they both relapsed again. For her it was due to pain pills she received at a hospital after an accident.
While her husband went to rehab, she got help from Chrysalis Health, a behavioral healthcare service for children, adolescents and adults for about a month.
Now, Kelley-Wilmath is focusing on herself. She recently got a job as a lead generator of sales at a tree company, which has a zero-tolerance policy for drugs, to support her and her now 1-year-old daughter. The House Next Door, which provides family education and support programs, provides her with a life coach who comes to her house once a week to plan her next steps in recovery and for getting custody of her other two children.
“I look at my daughter and she’s just this amazing thing,” Kelley-Wilmath said with a smile, showing off photos and videos on her phone. “She’s a miracle to keep me clean. No medication can help me more than her.”
This is the third installment in an occasional series of stories from The Daytona Beach News-Journal about opioid addiction in Volusia and Flagler counties. If you are an addict, in recovery or have a family member struggling with addiction and would like to share your story, please email email@example.com.