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Medical examiner says opiates, heroin are a countywide problem

According to Medical Examiner Patty Schachtner's records, 32 unnatural deaths have occurred in St. Croix County between September 2013 and June 22, 2014. In 15 of those cases, the person who died had a history of drug abuse and had fatal levels of one or more drugs in their system. Five deaths were related to alcohol.

Despite having what many would consider a very difficult job, St. Croix County medical examiner Patty Schachtner is passionate about her job, particularly when it comes to the growing number of drug-related deaths countywide.

Schachtner said that as she has worked around the county over the past year, she has heard more than once that heroin and opiates “are Hudson’s problem. That isn’t happening here.”

But she begs to differ and has the facts to back it up.

According to her records, between September 2013 and June 22, 2014, there have been 32 deaths that were ruled “not natural.” In 15 of those cases, the person who died had a history of drug abuse and had fatal levels of one or more drugs in their system. Five deaths were related to alcohol.

Over the last year, 11 people under the age of 25 have died. Seven of those deaths have been drug-related. Drugs have replaced SIDS as the leading cause of death among children.

“One could argue that two thirds of those deaths are due to addiction and that does not include the cases where the decedent‘s manner of death was natural but drugs contributed to the death,” said Schachtner.

Schachtner would like to see every community in St. Croix County make an effort to understand opiate and other drug addiction and make a commitment to do something about it.

Schachtner believes opiate painkillers are where the problem starts. Of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, only six have not seen an increase in opiate-related deaths. She understands the importance of treating pain, especially chronic pain, but thinks more should be done to help people understand the consequences of what they are taking.

She breaks the chronic painkiller users into two groups -- those who are opiate dependent and those who are addicted. Those who are dependent need their medication to manage chronic pain, remaining on it for years.

“They are still productive members of society but their dependence is real and it grows.”

Those who are addicted may first take the medication to treat pain but it turns into something else. “They have an addictive personality and they need more and more to feel the high they crave -- chasing the dragon --that’s what they call it. Not everyone who is painkiller dependent becomes an addict but some do. And those dependent can overdose accidentally. And that can be very difficult for a family to deal with -- a painful, dark secret.”

Schachtner would like to see all the “stakeholders” county-wide come together to address what she believes is almost an epidemic problem. That would include school districts, law enforcement, courts, social services and healthcare providers working together to create a comprehensive plan to address the problem.

She points to a plan and a publication from Anoka County in Minnesota as a possible model and is working to get those stakeholders on board.

“This isn’t just an emotional response. This problem has very real consequences and it costs those stakeholders and the taxpayers to deal with it. But there is something we can do.”

It starts with education. She recalled one parent who said she was missing spoons. She never connected the missing silverware with her child’s drug problem.

“So many times I hear from families that they didn’t know what to look for, that they didn’t understand what was happening. And they didn’t know where to go for help. That’s something we can change if we work on this problem together. Educating families what to look for is an important first step.”

Schachtner, along with Hudson parent Karen Hale who lost her daughter to a drug overdose last year, will speak about the problem at two conferences sponsored by the Department of Justice later this summer.

Schachtner believes the accessibility to the opiate painkillers contributes to the growing problem. These medications are often left on kitchen counters and in medicine cabinets where anyone can get at them.

“We need to treat these drugs as dangerous. Remember ‘Mr. Yuck?’ Kids knew what that meant. We need to talk to kids at home and in school and often about these drugs, use visuals, whatever to make them aware of what they are.”

Another would be to bring the issue out of the shadows to talk about it openly. “So many people are judgmental when it comes to addiction and that only serves to isolate those living with it even more. The truth is that addiction is kind of like cancer -- we almost all know someone living with it but we don’t talk about it or support each other. That needs to change as well.”

Schachtner knows the stigma associated for many families when they lose a loved one to drugs. Often months after a death, a family member will call to talk about what they had been living with, sometimes for years. And when they hear of another overdose, it rips it all open for them again. They sometimes admit that the death of their loved one was almost a relief. And they felt so alone with the problem. That’s what is so sad.”

Schachtner hopes that the conversation about drugs, addiction and the consequences of it will only grow in St. Croix County. She believes Hudson has made a good start.

“In our fight against drugs there are six words you should never say: ‘It will never happen to me.’ This attitude gives us a sense that we are above addiction or better then addiction. If you were to ask any family member of someone who died because of addiction they will tell you if it happened in my house, it can happen in yours. We investigate every fatal overdose in St Croix County. We see it everywhere, in every community in homes that are the definition of success to those who die along in the middle of the woods.”

The Hudson Community Foundation is sponsoring a follow-up to last year’s forum Heroin in Hudson tonight, July 17, at First Presbyterian Church, beginning at 6:30 p.m. The focus will be on where the problem is one year later and the efforts being made throughout the community to make things better.

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

(715) 808-8604