In October of 2008 I was diagnosed with progressive stage IV breast cancer. As I was beginning my treatment - which included a double mastectomy followed by chemo and radiation treatments, my son Sal was working on his recovery. Sal struggled with the disease of addiction from his early teen years. The support I received was unbelievable, there was nothing that I had to ever worry about – insurance was never an issue as everything I needed was approved without a second thought – my road to treatment and recovery was smooth sailing – never was there a point where I had to wait for medicine or treatment. Friends, family and co-workers made sure that I was never alone; that I always had a ride to treatment and/or to doctor’s appointment and food was sent to my home daily. I was surrounded by caring, understanding people.
Two years prior to my cancer diagnosis Sal had enrolled himself in Pennco technical school and graduated top of his class in the HVAC program. After graduation Sal was hired as an installer and quickly earned his way into managing and overseeing jobs on his own.
Sometime during the summer of 2009 while I was going through my treatments, Sal relapsed and in early fall had lost his job –I was winning my battle with my disease and getting continued support due to the fact that my disease was not stigmatized. Unfortunately this was not the same for Sal – Sal wanted help, but help was not easily accessible because his disease was addiction and he therefore was not afforded the same treatment that people with other diseases easily obtain. My son, like so many others, suffered as those in society judged him as weak. No one rallied around Sal to help him when he relapsed; instead he lost his job, he was frowned upon by society and considered weak.
For years, my daughter and I tried to help get Sal into drug treatment – treatment that he wanted but could not afford or access. We were turned away from hospitals and rehab facilities, one after another, due to a lack of beds and underfunding. When a child who is struggling with addiction and is ready and wants help the last thing you want to hear is "sorry, we can't take him", there aren't any beds available, call back every morning at 8 a.m., funding ran out, good luck ---what other disease has to hear these words? No one told me to wait for a bed when I had to go for my mastectomy and/or to keep calling to see if a chair becomes available so that I can start my chemo treatments! People who struggle with addiction do not have time to wait, especially when they are ready to get help. This is one of the most crucial moments. Waiting is not an option.
Addiction is a treatable chronic disease which must be treated and monitored just as any other disease. I have medicine that I will take the rest of my life and I have follow up appointments as part of my cancer treatment. Why are our loved ones who are struggling with the disease of addiction not being afforded the same care?
In June of 2010, we finally got Sal into a rehab facility – the only way we were able to get Sal into this facility was to say that he was abusing alcohol, which he wasn’t. Sal had called the same facility a few hours earlier asking for help for his heroin addiction and they told him that there was nothing available at the time for him. But, once he called and said he was abusing alcohol they told him to call back first thing in the morning and that a bed would be available for him. He called back and they told him to come right in, we gave him vodka and had him drink it and we took him to the facility where he was admitted. Much to our dismay, just 17 days into his program, Sal was involuntarily released because funding had run out. He applied for an extension and this was denied because he was told the funding ran out. Sal’s release papers were clearly marked that he was a high risk for relapse – but he was still released.
On Sal’s 90th day clean and sober - September 23, 2010, we lost Sal to an accidental overdose. Sal was not alone when he overdosed, but the person who was with him did not call 911 – most likely for fear of arrest. Sal was in an overdose situation and was left to die. With resources and proper treatment, I firmly believe Sal could have beaten his disease.
Nothing is going to bring Sal back; I will carry him forever in my heart - I knew that I needed to do something to make a difference - not only to honor Sal - but to prevent future overdose deaths and spare other families the grief that mine has endured. After Sal’s death I began advocating with the Drug Policy Alliance in New Jersey for the implementation of 911 Legislation. On May 2, 2013 Governor Christie signed into law the Overdose Prevention Act.
The Overdose Prevention Act combines two different pieces of overdose prevention legislation, one that provides legal protections to those who experience or witness a drug overdose and summon medical assistance and one that expands access to the life-saving medication naloxone.
The implementation of these new policies opens up the opportunity to save countless lives going forward.
Calling 911 to save a life and treatment must go hand in hand - we can't save someone from an overdose and then deny treatment for their disease. And with that treatment we must also provide education and the proper tools to maintain a healthy way of living – we are defeating the purpose of the new law if we can't follow through and give them the help they need and deserve. Recovery is possible - and it happens with the right tools.
There is no other disease that faces as many barriers as addiction does. No one has to fight as hard as a person struggling with addiction to get treatment. We need more funding, more beds, expanded treatment and for insurance companies to recognize and treat addiction like any other disease.
Salvatore Marchese 4/11/84 - 9/23/10 Forever In Our Hearts