GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Facebook message from a grieving grandma prompted Target 8 to take a closer look at overdose deaths in West Michigan.
“Could you talk about all the kids dying from fentanyl in Michigan?” Jane Toscano of Wyoming asked via Facebook.
“My grandson was just 21. He took a laced pill and now he lives in the ground. His life mattered. Please talk about it. Don’t let any other families hurt like mine.”
Roy Feliciano, who Toscano described as an animal lover with a big heart and hair-trigger temper, died of an overdose Aug. 8 in the home he shared with his grandmother in Wyoming.
“You know, he was no angel, but he didn’t deserve to die and I know he didn’t want to die,” said Toscano, who fought tears throughout the interview.
“Losing Roy was the hardest thing that I ever did in my life, and I don’t want anybody else to hurt like me and his mother,” Toscano said.
Feliciano’s death certificate listed “acute fentanyl toxicity” as his cause of death.
Toscano believes her grandson, who was struggling with a painkiller addiction, thought he bought Percocet, but instead got the much more potent opioid — synthetic fentanyl.
“He’s not the only American that has unknowingly lost their lives due to drugs laced with fentanyl,” Toscano wrote on Facebook.
Far from it, in fact.
ASPIRING DENTAL HYGIENIST, 20, AMONG THOSE LOST TO FENTANYL
Isabelle Sutter was also among those who lost their lives to fentanyl in Kent County this year.
Sutter, 20, graduated from Forest Hills Central High School, attended Grand Rapids Community College and was working toward becoming a dental hygienist.
“She’s just the most supportive and kind person that I’ve ever met, and her kindness would just radiate to everyone that was in her life,” said Mikayla Carrier, Sutter’s best friend since second grade.
Sutter’s cousin, Tess Poynter, described her as “sunshine in human form.”
“She just had the biggest heart and she was always kind to everyone. She just lit up the room with her laugh,” Poynter said.
Sutter was in her Grand Rapids apartment on July 15 when she overdosed on fentanyl.
Her family and friends believe she thought she was taking oxycontin.
“I know she had been struggling with some insomnia and severe headaches, and I guess she just took something that she thought would be a pain relief and it ended up that it was laced with fentanyl and that’s what ended up taking her life,” Poynter explained.
Two weeks before she died, Sutter was having trouble falling asleep and called her best friend.
“She had mentioned to me that she had used oxy(contin) to sleep once before and that she didn’t have any more and she wasn’t going to try to find any more,” Carrier recalled.
Carrier wishes she’d known then the deadly risks posed by painkillers bought without prescriptions.
“I didn’t think it was a big concern at the time and I wasn’t really well-verse in how dangerous those kinds of drugs are,” Carrier explained.
IN 2020, 64% OF KENT CO. FATAL OD’S CAUSED BY ILLICIT FENTANYL
A Target 8 examination of death records showed fentanyl was listed as the primary drug in 53 of 83 fatal overdoses recorded in Kent County in 2020 through early September.
In other words, in 64% of fatal overdoses in the Grand Rapids metropolitan area, illicit fentanyl was the main culprit.
The percentage was even higher in the 12 counties served by the Office of the Medical Examiner at Western Michigan University.
From April through September, fentanyl was the first drug of mention in around 75% of 164 overdose deaths.
WMU’s pathology department serves a dozen counties, including Kalamazoo, Calhoun, Muskegon, Barry, Allegan and Van Buren.
As Target 8 previously reported, statistics from the WMU medical examiner program showed fatal overdoses in April, May and June 2020 doubled when compared to same three months in 2019.
In Kent County, fatal overdoses over those same three months spiked by 76% from 21 in 2019 to 37 in 2020.
Dr. Wilson Compton of the National Institute on Drug Abuse told Target 8 that overdose deaths are up nationwide despite the pandemic, and the increasing prevalence of illicit fentanyl in all kinds of street drugs is one of the reasons.
“Drugs dealers aren’t very careful with their dosages in the substances they are selling on the streets, and so people that are using illegal drugs may not know the potency of what they’re taking, and so that’s why accidental deaths are so common with fentanyl products,” Compton explained.
He noted that fentanyl used appropriately in a medical setting can be enormously beneficial in the effort to control patients’ pain.
“Fentanyl is a chemical that’s used medically in hospitals on a regular basis,” said Compton in a Zoom call. “What’s been the main concern is not fentanyl from our medical system, but fentanyl that’s produced overseas and sold in the illegal drugs markets across the United States.”
DOCTOR: FENTANYL 50X STRONGER THAN HEROIN, 100X STRONGER THAN MORPHINE
According to Compton, fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.
“We also see that it’s being pressed into tablets, so people may be buying something they think is Alprazolam (Xanax) or a sedative agent, and what they’re actually getting is fentanyl in the form of a tablet,” Compton said.
According the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Drug Threat Assessment, “fentanyl remains the primary driver behind the ongoing opioid crisis, with fentanyl involved in more deaths than any other illicit drug.”
“Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are widely available through the Great Lakes, Midwest, and the Northeast areas of the United States. The two primary sources of the fentanyl are Mexico and China, where drug traffickers produce fentanyl and other synthetic opioids in clandestine operations,” wrote the DEA in its risk assessment.
The substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration described fentanyl as “the third wave of the opioid crisis, with the first wave being primarily prescription opioids, and the second wave being heroin.”
“What we are seeing is that more illicit drug products are containing some amounts of fentanyl,” wrote a SAMHSA spokesperson in an email to Target 8.
“The obvious risk is that no one really knows what they are buying off the street and these drugs pass through several hands with each potentially adding some other substance along the way. There is no way to be certain that the product does not contain fentanyl or any other dangerous substance,” wrote the SAMHSA official.
Families of both Roy Feliciano and Isabelle Sutter hope sharing their devastating loss will keep others from making the same deadly mistake.
GRANDMA: IT’S TOO LATE FOR ROY, BUT NOT FOR OTHER KIDS
“It’s too late for Roy, but it’s not too late for other people’s kids. Kids, don’t take the pills. It’s not worth it,” Jane Toscano said.
Sutter’s friends said they know she’d want people to learn from her story.
“It seems so distant a problem to a lot of people. But you don’t know what someone is going through, and you don’t know what methods they are using to try to cope with what they’re going through,” Carrier said.
“So really, I think being open and honest with people is a key to helping with this issue. I just hope that her story is able to save someone else,” Carrier said.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, SAMHSA urges you to call its national treatment referral helpline 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at 1.800.662.HELP (4357).
If you or someone you know takes opioids, you can protect yourself by learning how to use the overdose reversal drug, Naloxonem, always having it on hand and never taking opioids when you’re alone. For free Naloxone and training, contact the Red Project.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be contacted at 1.800.273.TALK (8255).