Memorial wall for opioid overdose victims makes stop in Pittsburgh
They are tiny white pills, 22,000 of them, with tiny faces engraved into them.
Behind each face is the story of a person who fatally fell victim to the opioid crisis.
"Each of these faces had lives, friends, loved ones and unknown potential," said Michelle Lynam, an Altoona resident who lost her son, Greg, to a heroin and fentanyl overdose in March. "Each of these faces struggled with opioid addiction and ultimately lost their battle. But the battle can be won. The stigma surrounding this issue is so unfortunate, and it's costing lives."
Lynam spoke to a crowd Monday that included Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg as the nonprofit National Safety Council unveiled a traveling opioid exhibit at the William Pitt Student Union. The exhibit, named Prescribed to Death, includes a striking memorial wall made of the 22,000 pills that represent those lost to prescription opioid overdose in 2015.
"It's time that we start looking at this as we look at every other epidemic, as a public health issue," Peduto said. "This is an issue that is affecting the Rust Belt heavier than other parts of the country. And if we work together to help individual people and recognize those individuals as humans, we will make a difference and we will be able to stem the tide."
A National Safety Council poll found 1 in 4 Americans are directly impacted by opioid misuse. Deborah Hersman, president of the National Safety Council, said more than 4,600 Pennsylvania residents died of drug overdoses in 2016, and 85 percent of those deaths occurred through an opioid.
"It is impossible to turn on the news and not hear another story about the opioid epidemic in our country," she said.
Lynam's son, Greg, was 29 when he died. He dabbled in marijuana and alcohol in high school and later became addicted to prescription pills. He then began using heroin. He got clean several times — at one point for four years — but continued to relapse.
On March 28, Greg took his son ice skating and later made dinner, Lynam said. After putting his son to bed, he left his parents' home and went out to meet a friend.
"Within hours, our lives were changed forever," Lynam said, with her daughter, Kimberly Lawther at her side. "We lost our only son, Kim her own brother, a daddy, a nephew, a cousin and a loyal friend. He was a beautiful soul with a big heart, a great sense of humor and the most beautiful blue eyes you can imagine."
Michelle Lynam of Altoona discusses loss of her son Greg. He overdosed on heroin/fentanyl on 3/28/17. He was 29 pic.twitter.com/llOuhazrmo— Ben Schmitt (@bencschmitt) January 29, 2018
Lynam's story of her son highlighted Nordenberg's point that the faces on the memorial wall aren't the faces of bad people or weak people.
"They're the faces of 22,000 people, good people who became victims of this awful disease, a disease that in effect took over part of the brain," he said.
Peduto called on U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who visited Pittsburgh on Monday, to make sure that the opioid problem is no longer dealt with "simply as a criminal issue."
"Help the families that are suffering," he said. "People are struggling. They don't need the added burden of being outcast, and they certainly don't need a one-size criminal action approach to be able to solve it."
The memorial was initially launched in Chicago in November. It will open to the public daily through 1 p.m. Friday.
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.