Three mothers sat on a stage Tuesday morning at BREC’s Independence Park Theatre with a photo of a teenage girl — dark bangs, soft grin, youthful skin — hanging above them. One of the mothers, Tracy Bynum, pointed to the picture of her daughter and asked the crowd to imagine what a heroin user looks like.
“That’s probably not the image that came to mind,” Bynum said.
Nevertheless, Bynum’s daughter, Madison Miele, died five years ago at the age of 18, forcing Bynum into what she described as an undesirable and growing sorority of mothers whose children die of heroin overdoses.
“My hope is that one parent will go home tonight and have a conversation with their child,” Bynum, a news producer in Alabama, said Tuesday during a gathering of law enforcement authorities, drug treatment specialists and community members at an event billed as the Louisiana Heroin Summit.
The gathering featured several panels and forums meant to tackle how to best combat heroin use in Louisiana, which in the past two years has soared, leading to a significant increase of heroin overdose deaths across the state — a trend also seen across much of the country.
Last year, East Baton Rouge Parish saw about 10 percent of the state’s more than 300 overdose deaths at least partly attributable to heroin use. This year, 19 people have died in the parish from a heroin overdose — a figure Dr. Beau Clark, the parish coroner, warned could rise based on last year’s relative spike in deaths at the end of 2013.
Still, this year’s total through mid-October represents a significant increase from the five heroin overdose deaths in the parish in 2012.
Clark, the summit’s keynote speaker, stressed the need for a two-pronged approach. The state must harshly punish convicted heroin dealers, while expanding treatment for heroin addicts, he said.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” Keith Brown, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s New Orleans field division, said during the summit, echoing a theme of the event. He later added, “We want to break down all the walls between treatment and law enforcement.”
Two recovering addicts who now work at St. Christopher’s Addiction Wellness Center in Baton Rouge provided harrowing accounts of the grip the drug had on their lives.
Zack Knippenberg, a counselor at the treatment center, said his old life revolved around obtaining, using and selling drugs. The lifestyle was nearly as hard to shed as the drug use, Knippenberg said.
Both Knippenberg and Jeremy Brooks, a manager at the wellness center, said they started drinking and smoking marijuana when they were young teenagers.
“I was one of those guys that would pretty much just try anything,” Brooks said.
He first snorted heroin in his teen years. By 18, Brooks was shooting heroin intravenously, he said.
Only after uprooting his life in Texas, undergoing intense abstinence treatment and surrounding himself with a solid support team in Baton Rouge did Brooks become committed to a drug-free life.
Dr. Ken Roy, founder and medical director of Addiction Recovery Resources Inc., described the need for heroin among addicts as nearly irresistible, similar to the relentless hunger someone would experience while going weeks without food.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s a choice,” Roy said.
Medical experts and law enforcement authorities alike noted, as they have in the past, heroin’s indiscriminating nature, something Chiquita Wallace, of Baton Rouge, knows all too well.
Her son, Kirk Wallace, died of a heroin overdose in January 2013. He was 39.
“It takes anybody, everybody,” Wallace said of the drug. “And it will completely destroy their personalities.”
Her son, once a reliable worker and father, stopped caring about his son, his work and nearly every other aspect of his life after becoming addicted, Wallace said.
Eventually, a woman found her son in a bathroom, unconscious, with a syringe still inside his arm.
Miriam Fontaine, the third mother on the panel, once walked into her son’s bedroom to find him unconscious and not breathing.
“I looked at my son, and he was basically dead,” Fontaine, of Baton Rouge, recalled.
Her son didn’t die that day. And he didn’t die 10 days later when he overdosed again on heroin, Fontaine said, having been saved by fast-acting paramedics and family members.
At that point, her son had become a stranger to her — an alien in a familiar body, Fontaine said.
Her son endured treatment at hospitals and detox centers. After years of batting addiction, he finally was able to give up heroin, and he’s been drug-free for three years now, she said.
Part of heroin’s unique danger, however, lies in the drug’s ability to kill people who haven’t used it often. Bynum, whose daughter died in 2009, said it was her daughter’s second time using the drug when the fatal overdose occurred.
A friend of Madison’s who was with her when she died said Madison told her she didn’t like the high. The drug just made her sleepy, and she didn’t plan on doing it again, the friend told Bynum.
“It was the last time,” Bynum said. “Unfortunately.”
Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.