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Faces of the opioid crisis: A mother’s plea for change

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TOLLAND — The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is projecting that more than 880 people in Connecticut will die of an accidental drug overdose by the end of 2016. That’s a more than 230 percent rise in overdose deaths in just four years, with the majority of those deaths caused by heroin use.

Jennifer Kelly, of Tolland, now speaks out against this is pressing issue, saying its one she never thought she’d be a part of. Her daughter, Justice, now lives in a vegetative state following her addiction to heroin.

Jennifer tells FOX 61, that at age 20, Justice was a dental hygienist student with a 4.0 grade point average. Jennifer described early signs that something was not right with her daughter. She said Justice lost a lot of weight, she was wearing long sleeves all the time, even in the summer, and she was nodding off in the middle of the day.

Jennifer confronted her daughter and that’s when Justice said the four words that rattled their world, “I’m a heroin addict.”

“It takes the wind right out of you. It’s so scary. Heroin is a scary thing, you know, if I thought of a heroin addict it was some guy that sits under a bridge somewhere -  it was not my 20-year-old daughter,” Jennifer said about hearing those words come out of her daughter’s mouth.

According to the National Safety Council, four out of five people using heroin begin with prescription pain pills. Justice’s road was no different.

“As far as I know they weren’t legally prescribed to her, but that’s how she started,” Jennifer said.

Jennifer, feeling naïve, did what she could to get her daughter help. Justice was put on a methadone treatment plan, one commonly used for heroin detox.

Justice went through multiple relapses, and a bout of homelessness which led to her purse with her daily asthma inhaler being stolen. She went back to her mom’s asking for help one final time. While at her mom’s house, Justice collapsed.

“She was gone from my room for minutes, really not that long, and I heard this horrible scream and I just ran and I found her on the floor she was gasping,” Jennifer explained about the day that their lives were forever changed. Jennifer rushed her daughter to Rockville Hospital, just a short distance away.

“She was blue, not breathing and I screamed and I just begged God to please not take my girl,” Jennifer said.

She described the moment she was first allowed to see her daughter after the incident.

“It was horrific you know, she was hooked up to every machine you could think of. She was on a ventilator,” Jennifer said.

From Rockville Hospital, Justice was transported to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. Jennifer said doctors there explained that Justice suffered a two-part brain injury, caused by the lapse in asthma medication combined with a heroin mixture they believe she inhaled that morning. Those brain injuries left her in a vegetative state.

“Her chances of recovery are very slim. There’s probably no likelihood of recovery,” Jennifer said.

Now, Justice receives 24-hour care in a nursing home in New Hampshire. Jennifer explained she had to choose the nursing home based on the very specific medical needs her daughter now has, but wishes she was able to keep her closer to home.

Jennifer described her daughter in her younger years, before her drug use began.

“She was so cute, she had such a personality. I used to tell her 'you’re sassy!' She was so sassy,” Jennifer said.

Jennifer moved her two children to Tolland when Justice was in the 9th grade. She said the appeal was the good school system. Tolland was ranked 34th on the “Best Small Town in America” list put together by Money Magazine. It is now a community, like so many others in Connecticut, struck by the opioid crisis.

Jennifer said that an old friend of her daughter said she has now lost seven friends to drugs.

“These are kids that should be going to graduation parties and baby showers and weddings and instead their going to funerals,” Jennifer said.

She recently shared her daughter’s story in Washington D.C., to testify before the Bipartisan Task Force to Combat the Heroin Epidemic. Jennifer used her testimony to urge that more funding is needed to help those who want it.

She also shared that her hope is that community leaders and parents don’t shy away from this growing problem.

“I was that parent that was afraid and I was that parent that didn’t talk to people and look where I am. This is an uncomfortable subject, but if it saves your child’s life then it’s worth it,” Jennifer said.

She said that conversation needs to begin in the schools.

“Kids need to see that there is something pretty horrific at the end of that needle,” Jennifer said.

With the help of a donated space in Tolland, Jennifer is now launching a support group, “Sharing Without Shame” for moms who have lost a child to addiction. She described these meetings a place of compassion, love, healing, and support where mothers can share in their grieving.

Those meetings will take place on the first Sunday of every month, beginning December 4. They will be held at 10 a.m. at 384-P Merrow Road in Tolland.

Jennifer has also just been appointed at the Public Relations Coordinator for the non-profit, The Foundation of Cultivating Change, in which she hopes to focus her work on education and awareness in Tolland County as well as work towards building quality sober homes in the area.

In the meantime, Jennifer visits her daughter in New Hampshire several times a week.

There are ways to get help for heroin addiction:

To find a treatment assessment center near you, call 1-800-563-4086.