By Steven Hoffman
The montage showed photos of Kacie Rumford’s life. There she was as an infant, grinning adorably during a birthday party. A slightly older Kacie blew bubbles with her father and made snow angels on a winter's day. A teenage Kacie posed for the camera, all dressed up for a school dance. Then, after 2 minutes and 21 seconds of happy and heartwarming photos comes the final, jarring image: Kacie laying in a coffin.
Andy Rumford, who sometimes still starts his day by spraying his daughter's perfume in the air just so that smell, her smell, will be in his family's Kennett Square home, said that no matter how painful it is for him to see the photo of his dead daughter, there was no other way for the photo montage to end because that's how Kacie's four-year struggle with drug abuse ended.
“On March 12, our daughter died of a heroin overdose in her bedroom,” Rumford told a crowd of more than 150 people at the Oxford Presbyterian Church on June 19. “A parent’s worst nightmare became a reality for us that day. Kacie's Cause was established before our daughter was laid in her crypt. When you lose your daughter, the tears don’t stop.”
No one would have blamed the Rumford family for privately grieving the loss of their 23-year-old daughter. But Rumford said that Kacie would have wanted him to try to help other families who find themselves in a battle with addiction. So since her death, Rumford has dedicated himself to educating others about the perils of drug use. He has assembled a team of 15 core members who organize the work of more than 200 volunteers. The goal is to educate communities and spread the word about the dangers of heroin, while also working with lawmakers to improve existing laws.
Rumford said that the epidemic is “gripping our town and country” and once heroin gets a stranglehold on a person, it’s a life-or-death fight. More than 100 people die each day in the U.S. from drug overdoses.
“Death can occur at any time,” he said gravely. “This can happen at any time.”
Somber evidence of that point came in the form of two memorial boards placed at the front of the room, filled with pictures of young people who have passed away as a result of drug addiction.
An important part of the mission for Kacie's Cause is to dispel the enduring myths about heroin. The image of a heroin addict as a withered IV drug user collapsed in a dark alley is no longer accurate. Heroin, a synthetic derivative of morphine, can now be used in various forms so people who might otherwise be scared of putting a needle in the arm can now smoke or sniff the same drug. Because the drug is available in these various forms, it is easier to consume and more affordable. Consequently, it is becoming the drug of choice for a growing number of young people. Between 1995 and 2002, the number of youngsters between the ages of 12 and 17 who used heroin at some point increased by 300 percent in the U.S.
Officials said that heroin is currently being dealt in middle schools and high schools.
Today, the heroin user “looks like the typical teenager going to the mall or into the Walmart,” Rumford said.
Bob Hotchkiss, the CEO of Southern Chester County Emergency Medical Services, Inc., has been responding to emergency calls for 31 years. His career started in Chester, Pa. and Wilmington, Del., and drug problems were rampant in both cities. When he started serving southern Chester County, there were a lot fewer drug calls, but now heroin and other drugs are more readily available in the suburbs and quiet communities.
Just a few days before the town hall forum, Hotchkiss said, emergency personnel responded to a call where a man overdosed in the parking lot of a church in Avondale. He estimates that fully one-third of the cardiac arrest calls are related to drug overdoses.
Hotchkiss has witnessed the devastating effects that an overdose has on a family firsthand.
“When this hits, you’re in a panic,” he said. “This is a crisis.”
No family is immune to the dangers of drug abuse, and addiction cuts across socio-economic lines.
“Now, not a week goes by when we don’t have an overdose,” Hotchkiss said. “I’m walking into houses and I can’t believe heroin is here. It’s shocking. I see these kids and I think, 'I can’t believe this kid is on heroin.'”
“It is in our area. It is all over the country,” said Oxford Mayor Geoff Henry, who met Rumford during one of the first Kacie's Cause town hall meetings. Henry wanted the organization to come to Oxford to share information and to get people involved in the effort. It was evident that many in the community have already been concerned about heroin and its prevalence.
Several speakers talked about how it's not uncommon to see heroin bags show up in the parking of the local school, or outside a convenience store or a grocery store. Heroin is often sold in a bag that resembles a packet of sugar and costs only about $7, which is one reason why the drug is now so widespread.
Luis Tovar, the moderator for the town hall, asked how many people knew someone who was waging a battle against drug addiction. The hands of 75 percent of those in attendance went up. How many people know someone who has died from a drug addiction? Nearly the same number of hands went up.
“Do you think it’s in your neighborhood?” Tovar asked rhetorically. “We just saw that it is.”
Rumford warned that it would be a mistake to think that your child doesn't have access to heroin and other drugs.
“The dealers of today are feeding off of parents' fear,” he said. “Craigslist has become the new street corner for drugs in this generation.”
He offered some advice to parents: “If you suspect that your child is using, act now.”
There are certain signs that parents can look for that indicate illicit drug use. They include a sudden change in behavior, mood swings, withdrawal from family members, carelessness about grooming, loss of interest in hobbies or sports, changes in sleeping patterns, and red or glassy eyes. When people are under the influence of heroin, they may demonstrate very sleepy behavior.
Several speakers warned that drug users, even young ones, quickly become experts at manipulation, lying, and stealing as they typically develop money problems to support the habit.
“Don’t trust anything your child says,” Rumford said. “Trust your judgment. Be vigilant.”
Danger signs of a heroin overdose include shallow breathing, pinpoint pupils, clammy skin, convulsions, or a coma.
For victims of an overdose, there are new treatments that are helping to save lives. Hotchkiss talked about the merits of Narcan, which is a product used by emergency responders to counter the effects of narcotics in an overdose victim.
“It works great. It saves lives,” he said.
Hotchkiss said that for paramedics the goal is to get an overdose victim to the hospital alive.
“As a paramedic, we are on the front lines, but we don’t cure the disease. All we do is fix the symptoms,” he said.
Many people at the town hall were willing to share their personal experiences about drug addiction.
Tovar said that his 22-year-old daughter is battling addiction and he feels blessed that she is just alive so that that her struggle can continue. Other parents aren't as fortunate.
Tovar cautioned parents about thinking that they can save a drug addict from the disease.
“This is the toughest thing to learn,” he said. “We can’t cure it, we didn’t cause it. We can only offer our support. It’s a family disease.”
A woman whose son became an addict talked about how hard it was, after years of relapses, to watch her son end up in prison. She finally came to the conclusion that all she could do was to let him find his way through the nightmare, even if that meant that he would spend time in prison.
She told her son, “I have to hand you over to God. You have to go on your own journey.”
Paul Matthews, a resident of Oxford, talked about the heartbreak that one of his coworkers faces as his daughter battles addiction.
“She gets better, months go by, and then she gets worse,” Matthews said.
Several drug counselors at the meeting said that relapses for heroin users are quite common.
Even some of the treatments for heroin addiction come with risks. Several people shared their opinions about the use of suboxone, which is sometimes prescribed to help people overcome opiate addiction. Several people said that the side effects of suboxone, and the risk of becoming physically dependent on it, were very concerning.
A ninth-grader at the high school talked about how it was hard seeing her classmates get hooked on drugs.
“I see so many kids come to school high all the time,” she said, crying.
“I’ve dealt with many kids who had drugs in high school,” said Oxford Area High School assistant principal Jamie Canaday. “Now is the time to reevaluate what we’re doing so that we can get more parents involved.”
Getting more people involved was precisely the goal of the forum. Rumford also announced that a Kacie's Cause chapter is now being formed in Oxford.
Kristin Gent is the new community coordinator for the Oxford chapter. She joined the effort because, as the mother of three children, she wants to make sure that the schools are safe. Gent will be organizing various Kacie’s Cause meetings and activities in the southern part of the county.
“My main focus is going to be on the schools,” she said, explaining that when she asked her ninth-grader if he could change one thing about the school he said it would be to get rid of the drugs.
“There’s no way to put these kids in a bubble and protect them,” Gent said. “We need to educate people. We need to work for drug demand reduction—when you educate and prevent, you reduce the demand.”
With younger children working their way through the school system, Gent said that her relationship with the high school is going to last until 2023.
“I want my children to be safe when they are on the bus or in a class,” she said. “So work with us. Help us get this turned around. We are going to make a difference.”
“If we can save just one life from this deadly drug, then we’ve made an impact,” Henry said.
Kacie's Cause organizers are planning future town hall meetings in Parkesburg, Kennett Square, Elkton, Md. and other communities.
Rumford recalled that a 12-year-old Kacie once felt compelled to write a letter about the importance of stem-cell research to President George Bush. She wrote the letter because she thought that one person, writing one letter, could make a difference.
Surrounded by a team of supporters that grows every time they talk publicly about the cause, Rumford wants to make sure that his daughter was right about that.
“I’m sure she would be proud of every one of us,” Rumford said. “If Kacie wasn’t on drugs, she was an activist. I want to take that role on for her. She speaks through our team now. She will be an angel on our shoulders. I would love to haver her legacy be that people rallied around this message. One person can make a difference. I want to make Kacie’s dream come true. Kacie wanted to change the world, and now she will.”
The Kacie’s Cause website at www.kaciescause.com has a lot of information about the resources that are available to families battling addiction.