Lessons From the Families of Deceased Opioid Addicts

She couldn’t list the cause of death in her son’s obituary. “The stigma is so intense,” reflects Lesli Rae Messinger. What she wrote instead: “He died suddenly, at home.”

Messinger ran for Congress in Georgia in 2012. Now, living with PTSD as a result of the grief and trauma, she works with Savannah Harm Reduction Coalition and is an advocate for addicts and families in crisis. “It makes me feel better to help people,” says Messinger. “I’m doing it all for Austin.”

Her teen’s addiction

When he was 13, Messinger’s son Austin broke his arm skateboarding. Doctors gave him morphine for the pain and his mother says, “He liked it too much.”

Austin experimented with drugs throughout high school in New Jersey. After graduation, he got a job at a trucking company and made good money. But he spent the money on drugs and his girlfriend, who was addicted to pills.

He was trying to turn things around. He had been clean 10 days but then used again, overdosed and died. Messinger believes every home should have Naloxone, an emergency medicine that can treat a narcotic overdose and hopefully prevent death.

Kimberly’s story  

Kimberly Marie Russell died at age 20, following a long-time addiction to pills. As a small child, she’d suffered from migraines. The headaches were so severe that little Kimberly would vomit and end up at the hospital — where doctors gave her painkillers.

Russell lived with her mother, Linda Lee Chavez, in Flagstaff, AZ. She often had a hard time paying attention. When she got nervous for school tests, Chavez’s father, a doctor who ran a worker’s comp clinic, gave his granddaughter some Valium to relax. When she was 14, Russell took 1,000 pills of Vicodin from her grandfather, using some and selling the others at school.

“She’d get her hands on pills and then she’d take them all,” says Chavez, whose daughter overdosed four times and went to rehab three times. Bullied, Russell was in and out of different schools over the years, including public, private and charter schools. She never finished high school. Painkiller addiction was an on-going problem.


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“She spent her last birthday, Christmas and New Year’s in jail,” says Chavez, who had her daughter arrested for stealing her jewelry, credit cards and checkbook. Russell developed an ear and staph infection, and a doctor prescribed 30 Percocet. She asked for more pills and, six days later, the doctor gave her 60 Vicodin. Within 24 hours, she was in the intensive care unit with stomach and liver problems.

Chavez says Russell told her, “Mom, please tell God I don’t want to die.” But Russell’s body was shutting down. Doctors induced a coma because her brain pressure was too high. She died September 1, 2005.

Over a decade later, Chavez still misses her daughter but says she’s relieved. “She can’t hurt herself anymore.”

A functioning user

In 2014, over 28,000 Americans died from opioids, including prescription pain medicines and heroin. “It can happen to anyone,” says Carolyn Dorsett, whose youngest son Greg overdosed and died when he was 27.

“Messinger believes every home should have Naloxone, an emergency medicine that can treat a narcotic overdose and hopefully prevent death.”

He joined the football team as a linebacker and felt his weight was an advantage. But when he broke his leg, doctors gave him painkillers. In addition to the injury, Vizquerra’s grades weren’t good. He quit school.

“That was a turning point in his life,” says his mother. “He started hanging out with the wrong crowd. I was begging him to stop.” But Vizquerra went from smoking pot to taking pills and trying heroin. Fullmer kicked him out. He was arrested for drug dealing and spent three months in county jail, where he got his GED.

When he was 24, Vizquerra said he wanted to change his life. He went to a rehab center for over a year and got clean. He moved into a house next door to sober living but worried when his roommate started using drugs. Then, after two years of sobriety, Vizquerra relapsed and died of morphine intoxication in December 2004.

“When he died, I lost my best friend,” says Fullmer, who believes her son mistakenly thought he could manage his drug use.

Those left behind

“There’s no grief like losing a child,” says Lesli Messinger. “I don’t want any other mother to go through this.”

She’s grateful for the love and support of her fellow grieving mothers, including Chavez, Fullmer and Dorsett, who have connected online to find comfort and support. They’ve even gotten together in real life. They hope to prevent other families from experiencing the same kind of loss.

“Lock up your medicine cabinet,” warns Messinger, explaining kids experiment with prescription drugs they find at home. “They take it because it feels so good. After a while, you take it because you have to.”