Education key to stop overdoses

Josh Lehner, Staff Writer

More than 100,000 drug overdose deaths occurred between April 2020 and April 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pandemic merely buried the saddening reality of this statistic, as America’s attention shifted focus to the virus.

But last Thursday, law enforcement officers, county workers and determined parents organized to realign the vision of a distracted community via the Reality of Addiction training session at UW Oshkosh. The purpose of the event was two-fold: spotlight the dangers of drug use and educate on how to help people who have overdosed.

Josh Lehner / Advance-Titan
Guest presenters share statistics of drug use in Winnebago County.

“2020 was awful,” said Jennifer Skolaski, facilitator of the Winnebago County Overdose Fatality Review, which analyzes the individual, organizational and systemic factors that cause and exacerbate drug overdose deaths.

“The stay-at-home order didn’t help anyone [recovering from addiction]. People were forced to be isolated, limiting their social gatherings […] Think of someone who had been in long-term recovery for 20 years, going to the same meeting every week, and then, suddenly, that meeting is closed. How do they find the help that they need?”

Skolaski said the number of overdoses has been increasing.

“In 2020, we saw 37 fatal overdoses, which is the highest number we’ve seen in Winnebago County — until 2021.” She said the 37 deaths doesn’t include non-fatal overdoses, which often lead to serious long-term problems.

Skolaski focused on the dangers of fentanyl, which is becoming one of the most fatal drugs in the country.

“Fentanyl was listed in the toxicology report for 28 of the 37 overdoses in Winnebago County,” she said.

It is also the leading cause of death for 18-to-45-year-olds.

The isolation brought about by the pandemic also played a role in the increase. Sokoloski said 95% of the deceased victims in Winnebago County died in a private location, such as their house. “This shows the isolation and lack of social connectedness the deceased felt,” she said.

Erin Rachwal and Michelle Kullmann, two mothers who lost their children to accidental overdoses, also spoke about their experiences.

“Losing my son has affected the way I conduct my therapy,” said Erin Rachwal, a therapist whose son Logan, a college student in Milwaukee, died of an accidental overdose in 2021. “You have to find something positive in something tragic, and that’s what I’m trying to do today.”
Rachwal said Logan was a kind kid.

“He had a great sense of humor and loved baseball and animals. He was the type of person who’d come home from school excited because he’d helped someone.”

But things started changing in middle school. “He began to struggle around the age of 12 or 13,” she said. “He was given painkillers after a surgery. We saw the effects the pills were having on him, so my husband and I discussed getting him off them. As we look back and piece things together, I think that’s where it started.”

Michelle Kullmann told a similar story about her son Cade, who died in 2021 while attending a Milwaukee college.

“Cade was an amazing, shining light full of energy,” she said. “He always pored himself into other people; he was the type of kid who was always there in a heartbeat if someone needed him.”

The two mothers now share a mission.

“We want to help other people who are living this horrific nightmare,” Kullmann said.

UWO has taken measures to counter the increase in drug fatalities nationwide, not only by organizing events like addiction training, but also by installing boxes that contain naloxone, a substance that combats the potentially fatal effects of an opioid overdose.

Rachwal questioned if her son would still be alive today if someone would have known the symptoms of an overdose.

“Logan took a pill while on a call with his girlfriend. He then fell asleep and began to snore — a sign of a fentanyl overdose. She hung up the phone because she didn’t know,” she said. “If she would’ve known, she could’ve called 911. But that didn’t happen.”