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Fábregas: Schools in dark on addiction

| Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 12:04 a.m.

The recent rash of heroin overdoses hit home for Rachele Morelli.

A year ago Thursday, Morelli's 18-year-old son died of a heroin overdose after struggling with depression and addiction to painkillers for several years.

“Things are definitely getting worse,” Morelli, 43, of Hempfield, told me. “It's devastating. It's heartbreaking. It's frustrating.”

In the year since her son Jonathan died, Morelli has seen no progress in the fight against drug addiction. She blames the scarcity of treatment facilities in the region and the inability of some schools to give drugs the attention they deserve.

Authorities say at least 22 people have died in the past two weeks from using a deadly mix of heroin and fentanyl, a painkiller similar to morphine that doctors use to treat severe pain. Perhaps because drug dealers are savvy marketers, they're selling the drugs with street names such as “Theraflu” and “Bud Ice.”

Experts say the mix can be up to 10 times stronger than the heroin that users typically shoot.

It's exactly the promise of a stronger, prolonged high that lures addicts, Morelli said.

“When you put it out there, it's like you're advertising it,” she said. “We put out warnings, but this is a brain disease. These addicts go in search of it.”

When I spoke to Morelli, she came across as a determined advocate, even though it is clear her son's loss changed her life. As I listened, I realized she could be any parent, any daughter, any friend. We all know someone who has gone down that path.

Morelli said Jonathan's addiction began in ninth grade after he had wrist surgery and doctors prescribed the painkiller Vicodin. The drug eased the pain and tempered symptoms of depression he developed in fourth grade when his dad committed suicide. The Vicodin gave way to OxyContin and, soon enough, heroin.

“Never, ever did I correlate depression to what it led to,” she said. “No one ever said to me that addiction was a possibility.”

Morelli dealt with the heroin addiction the way any responsible parent would, getting professional help for Jonathan at a rehabilitation facility. He was clean for roughly a year. She never suspected he had relapsed.

Jonathan, a senior at Hempfield Area High School, went to the gym and worked by paving and sealing driveways. He had a bright future, she said.

Jonathan, who was living with his grandfather and caring for him, did not get up to go to school on the morning of Feb. 6. Morelli made a habit of calling him every morning. When he wouldn't pick up his cellphone, she knew something was wrong.

Paramedics found him slumped at his computer desk. They said he had been dead for a few hours. Morelli hugged him and kissed him.

Police eventually found a needle and heroin in a third-floor bathroom. Jonathan was one of six overdose deaths that week.

Morelli produced a film about drug addiction that she has tried to show in schools. She said she had a hard time getting some school administrators to show it.

“A lot of schools don't want to admit that there's a problem.”

Newsflash: There is.

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media's medical editor. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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