Published on November 05, 2015

Brian Flynn’s 18th overdose was his last

Brian Flynn’s death was still raw and recent, yet there was Jeanne Flynn standing before an audience of parents and community members at a substance abuse forum, sharing her grief—and her resolve.

Jeanne Flynn shares her story

She described coming home from a baby shower that day in May to find her 26-year-old son unresponsive in a fetal position in the bathroom, a needle nearby and blue papers she believes contained the heroin that killed him.

It was the 18th and final time Brian overdosed since heroin took over his life seven years ago. He had become one more fatality in a growing epidemic of overdoses across the state and Cape Cod.

The statistics are staggering. Barnstable County alone has seen 315 opioid-related deaths in the last 14 years, with 2013 and 2014 proving to be the deadliest ever—nearly four times higher than in 2000.

Opioids include not only heroin, but other medications to relieve pain such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, codeine, morphine and other related drugs.

At least 3 percent of Cape Cod residents are addicted to or dependent on heroin or prescription opioids, according to Barnstable County Department of Human Services. Another 3 percent are addicted to other drugs.

That means that 13,000 Cape Cod residents are suffering drug problems. Another 27,000 adults and 3,000 others 17 and younger use marijuana regularly, with 9 percent considered addicted.

The 2014-2016 Community Health Needs Assessment Report prepared by Cape Cod Healthcare reports that substance abuse treatment rates among 15- to 19-year-olds run more than double that of the state. The same is true among 20- to 24-year olds.

“This (drug) problem demands that we respond quickly and vigorously to help ensure that our young people can grow into healthy, contributing members of our community,” says Michael Lauf, president and CEO of Cape Cod Healthcare.

“From my perspective, anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of the patients in the ER are addicted to something,” Lauf told the Cape Cod Times last year. “Before a snowstorm (last winter), 50 percent of the emergency room beds were taken up by people with either addiction or psychiatric problems, Lauf said.

“That’s a community problem,” he said. “It’s getting worse,” said he added. “I look at my 4- and 7-year-olds and I can’t believe what’s out there.”

Beyond the human cost, alcohol and drug abuse on the Cape carries a significant economic burden that diverts government and private dollars from other critical needs.

In 2013, Barnstable County spent $110 million [pdf] confronting drug and alcohol abuse. Of that money, almost all went to health care and law enforcement, including acute medical care, treatment, rehabilitation, arrests and incarceration.

All these numbers can be numbing. Until you meet and hear Jeanne Flynn talk about Brian. Her words sculpt the frightening dimensions of an epidemic. But they also kindle a flame of hope.

For seven years, Brian was tormented with serious infections from injections twice. He was arrested when police found drug paraphernalia in his bedroom after they were called during one overdose. He spent 30 days in the Bridgewater Correctional Facility, she told the audience at the substance abuse forum on Cape Cod.

More often than not, Flynn and her husband Arthur hit brick walls trying to find space for their son in detox centers, she said.

Earlier this year, Brian went to a treatment center in Texas and stayed clean for three months. But the light dimmed rapidly. A friend died from an overdose over the winter. In April, Brian broke his hand snowboarding. It required surgery, leaving him depressed and worried he would gravitate back to opioids to relieve the pain.

“I remember him saying, ‘Mom, no one wants to hire somebody with a broken hand and a felony.’ I felt his pain so deeply,” Flynn told the audience this summer at the substance abuse forum in Orleans, cosponsored by Cape Cod Healthcare’s office of Community Benefits.

Flynn said her life now is like a “movie reel in my mind. When I am alone, it goes all the time. I see Brian in all the phases of his life, and I wonder continuously why he was cheated.”

Yet, at Brian’s wake, Jeanne said her family gained new perspective. ‘We were awestruck by what we experienced,” she said. “For four hours, people lined up to pay their respects. You couldn’t find a seat to sit down. “

So many of the mourners were Brian’s friends and contemporaries – many from a fellowship he attended. “They talked and grieved about a Brian I did not know,” Flynn said. “I knew him as his mother and always wished that he find a responsible place in society.”

That day, she learned that her son, despite his own painful setbacks, had somehow discovered ways to help others. Mourners told her about the many times Brian stood by them through their own addictions and tough times.

“I remember Brian saying not too long ago: ‘I don’t know why I haven’t died yet when my other friends died the first time they used heroin. God may have a plan for me.’

“I, too, couldn’t make sense of how he survived those 17 other overdoses,” Flynn said. “I always hoped he would have a purpose. Now I think I know what it was. His death has to be a catalyst to reach out and help others.”