GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Saturday will mark five years since a deputy and two plainclothes officers knocked on Cindy Hubrecht’s door in Byron Center.
Her beautiful son was dead from a fentanyl overdose.
Brian Paul Palazzolo — described as a goofball with a heart of gold — was 27.
“My knees went weak. I kind of lost it. Like any parent would,” recalled Hubrecht of the worst moment of her life. “Brian was an amazing person. … He was always there to help people, to uplift someone who was down. … He defended the weak. When (Brian) was in junior high, there was a boy who was being picked on, and Brian defended this boy. The boy went home and told his parents, and the parents called me up and said, ‘If Brian ever needs anything, we are here for him.'”
At his funeral, Hubrecht said those who knew her son repeatedly told her that he “genuinely listened to people when they talked, and he was engaged in anything they had to say.'”
Five years after Palazzolo’s fatal overdose, Hubrecht is preparing to honor him at a Saturday morning memorial at the cemetery where his ashes are buried.
The gathering will happen at 11 a.m. at Fairplains Cemetery, 1105 Knapp St. NE in Grand Rapids. The memorial will take place near the cemetery’s Diamond Street entrance.
Hubrecht invites anyone touched by addiction or overdose to attend.
She’ll be handing out free kits of Narcan, the opioid overdose reversal drug, as well as fentanyl test strips, all of which she obtained through the Grand Rapids Red Project.
“We’re here to save lives and remember Brian,” said Hubrecht of Saturday’s event.
‘MOST POTENT, PLENTIFUL, DANGEROUS DRUG’
Hubrecht’s son died on April 8, 2018, after ingesting what he thought was heroin.
It was laced with fentanyl, which is the nation’s single deadliest opioid.
In the five years since Palazzolo’s fatal overdose, fentanyl has only tightened its vice grip on those struggling with addiction.
“(It’s) much worse,” said Dr. Stephen Cohle, medical examiner for Kent County. “Fentanyl is the most potent, plentiful and dangerous drug that’s available out there.”
Cohle says fentanyl surpassed methadone as the most abused drug six or seven years ago, and it shows no sign of letting up.
“I think the fact that it’s easy to smuggle over the border has made it more available, and it’s cheaper,” Cohle said.
The synthetic opioid is also 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The Drug Enforcement Administration says chemicals are manufactured in China and sent to Mexico for further packaging before the drugs are smuggled across the southern border and distributed throughout the United States.
The DEA reports Mexican cartels are cutting opioids with fentanyl in order to stretch the supply and amplify the high.
In Michigan in 2017, there were 2,053 fatal opioid-related overdoses in Michigan, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Sixty-three percent of those fatal overdoses, or 1,297, involved fentanyl.
By 2021, fentanyl was a factor in 89% of fatal opioid overdoses in Michigan.
MDHHS reported 2,539 opioid deaths in 2021: 2,266 of them involved fentanyl.
In other words, the state reported a 74% increase in fentanyl-related deaths over five years, from 1,297 in 2017 to 2,263 in 2021.
Kent County numbers reflect that spike too.
According to the medical examiner’s office, fentanyl was the drug of first mention in 13 fatal overdoses in Kent County in 2015.
By 2022, fentanyl deaths in Kent County had increased to 84.
In the first month to six weeks of 2023, the medical examiner recorded nine such deaths, putting the county on pace to once again surpass the prior year’s death toll.
Fentanyl deaths in Kent County, per the medical examiner’s office:
- 2015: 13
- 2016: 20
- 2017: 49
- 2018: 38
- 2019: 58
- 2020: 77
- 2021: 72
- 2022: 84
‘A HOLE IN HIS HEART’
Cindy Hubrecht says her son, always concerned with the welfare of others, began to struggle himself around age 13.
“I noticed one day that he had marks on his arms. … He was cutting himself, and I did not know why. I begged him to tell me why, and his answer was that he had a hole in his heart,” recalled Hubrecht.
She tried to understand and help her son heal that hole.
But by high school, Palazzolo, who graduated from Forest Hills Eastern, had discovered pills.
Hubrecht said her son’s friends stole them from their parents’ medicine cabinets.
“By the time he passed away, eight kids had died, overdosed, that he went to school with. Eight kids,” said Hubrecht.
Later, Palazzolo found heroin.
Despite going to rehab, trying medication-assisted treatment, and even moving out of state, Hubrecht said her son could not shake the addiction.
“He just had to do it one more time,” she said. “He said, ‘Mom, don’t worry mom, I know what I’m doing.’ First, (he said) ‘I’m not doing anything.’ Then, ‘Mom, I know what I’m doing.’ So then I knew. He was still using.”
TRIGGERS IN GRAND RAPIDS
Hubrecht believes her son was sober for five years prior to his death.
He’d been working out west.
“I had told him to leave. I said, ‘This is where all the triggers are.’ He had taken me through neighborhoods (in Grand Rapids) and said, ‘I got stuff from there, I’ve been there, I’ve been there. I’ve been there.’ All through the West Side, the north end,” she said.
But Palazzolo ultimately returned home to Grand Rapids.
Four months later, he was dead.
“I wish it was me,” said Hubrecht. “I still don’t understand why I wasn’t taken. I’ve lived a full life. He had every opportunity in the world to be anything he wanted to be, and he was smart enough to do it. But he had that one problem. I would give anything to have him back.”
Hubrecht said in addition to memorializing her son and handing out anti-overdose tools, she wants to ensure people who are struggling know they are cared for.
“I want to make sure people understand, these are not lost people. They are people who need our help,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Brian Paul Palozzolo’s name. We regret this error which has been fixed.