Healthy Living

How to Prevent the Next Opioid Tragedy

Sep. 15, 2023
Parents play a key role, but only if they can learn some vital approaches.

The Sunday before Thanksgiving, Dave Gibbons sat down in his home in Pittsford to watch the Bills game when the doorbell rang. His wife, Kate, answered—then let out the loudest scream that Dave had ever heard.

The Gibbons family
The Gibbons Family, from left: Dave, Paige, Kate, and Brooke.

Two police officers had told her the worst news a parent can hear: their 19-year-old daughter had died.

The night before, Paige Gibbons—a kind, ambitious, big-hearted lover of life—took a single pill of what she thought was the painkiller Percocet. Instead, it was 100 percent fentanyl, the opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin. She never woke up.

A friend of hers also took one pill and ended up in the hospital for weeks, lucky to survive.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 100,000 people died in 2021 from overdoses, with more than three quarters of those involving opioids like fentanyl.

The news reports of celebrity deaths are disturbing enough—the musician Prince, Eight is Enough actor Adam Rich, and on and on. Less discussed is the increase in accidental opioid deaths in “average” communities across the country.

It’s “a public health crisis,” says Monroe County Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Michael Mendoza. In Monroe County alone, hundreds of people are dying every year. The total number of opioid overdoses, including nonfatal ones, is now well over 2,000 a year.

“This is stuff we see every day,” says Leah Hill, Senior Chemical Dependency Counselor at Strong Recovery, UR Medicine’s longstanding service to promote recovery from substance use and mental health disorders.

Hill says that parents can play a key role in preventing the next tragedy—but only if they’re willing to hear some difficult truths.

How to Talk About Opioids

Leah Hill of Strong Recovery
Leah Hill of Strong Recovery

More awareness is vital, because these substances are showing up in unexpected places. Hill describes one patient at Strong Recovery, a 15-year-old who only used marijuana. He saw someone smoking near his school bus stop and asked if he could have some. He took one hit and collapsed; the pot was laced with fentanyl.

“Luckily,” says Hill, “the bus driver had Narcan.” The Narcan, a brand of the medication naloxone that reverses the effects of opioids, saved the teen’s life.

Once out of the hospital, the boy swore he’d stop using pot. But as an experienced counselor, Hill knew better. She said, “Listen, you probably want to keep using.” His response: “Yeah, I do.”

This is where parents come in. Or don’t.

Often, young people are using substances to deal with anxiety, depression, relationship problems, trauma, even abuse. If parents empathize and say they understand their child’s suffering, Hill says it’s a step toward dealing with the underlying reason for using substances.

If a parent finds a vape pen, for example, Hill says to be curious, not confrontational. Her favorite question in those situations is, “What is the substance doing for you? What relief is it giving you?”

Young people tell Hill that they don’t discuss drugs at home because they know their parents “are going to freak out.” So Hill says parents need to avoid lectures and judgment. “Make it safe to share and be honest,” she says. That’s the key to having open conversations.

Hill says to start by asking questions. “Seek to understand, not preach. If you lead with questions, they’re more likely to engage.”

This gives parents a chance to share accurate information, which is much better than the alternative. “If they’re not hearing it on TikTok, they’re hearing at school. Where do you want it to come from?”

What’s in Your First Aid Kit?

What the Gibbons family faced is something any parent could face, whether it’s their child or someone else’s.

Paige was a high-achieving student studying for a job in medicine. In high school, she held multiple jobs, studied to become an EMT, and volunteered her time raising funds for nonprofits, leading CPR training, and teaching kids how to swim. She preferred watching the nightly news with her parents to going out to parties.

Her father says Paige’s kindness and big heart also came with a certain naivety—she couldn’t have imagined someone selling a deadly substance disguised as something else.

Yet “the drug dealer was openly, actively selling on Instagram,” Dave Gibbons says.

The Gibbons, along with their 15-year-old daughter, Brooke, have become advocates to raise awareness of the dangers of opioids. They worked with the Monroe County sheriff’s department to develop a presentation, which they brought to a community forum at Nazareth College this past summer.

Kate took training in delivering Narcan, and Dave now carries it in his car. “I never thought in a million years I’d have Narcan,” he says.

Most people think the same thing. But Paige’s story is proof of what Hill tells people: drugs don’t discriminate. They inflict damage regardless of age, race, geography, class, or gender.

Hill’s advice: have Narcan on hand at all times. Even if you don’t think someone in your life will need it, you never know—and, if your kids’ friends are visiting your home, you don’t know what they might have taken before arriving.

“I see Narcan as a first aid kit,” Hill says. “You don’t know when you’ll need it, but if you do, it can save lives.”

In fact, major retailers such as CVS and Walmart have begun selling Narcan without a prescription—a sign of how serious the problem is and how mainstream Narcan has become.

Three times a month, Strong Recovery offers virtual Opioid Overdose Prevention Training, with free Narcan mailed to each attendee. Monroe County also offers free naloxone kits inside NaloxBoxes at locations throughout the region.

It’s all part of a growing public response to a public health crisis. That response includes people like the Gibbons family, who are working to make sure Paige’s legacy is the lives that can be saved through better awareness.

As Kate Gibbons puts it, “We do not want anyone else in our community to experience this. It’s hell.”

Strong Recovery Opioid Overdose Prevention Training on Zoom

For information or to sign up:

  • 2nd Wednesday of the Month, 5–5:30 p.m.
    Register Online or email MaryJo Newcomb or call (585) 275-4492.
  • 2nd Tuesday and Last Thursday of Each Month, 1–1:30 p.m.

Email Christina Collier or call (585) 275-1829.