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April 9, 2023

Where we started and where we are today


16 years ago, my daughter Zoe lost her life to an accidental drug overdose.

Alone in her bedroom, in her room next to mine. 

We both had gone to bed for the night. I woke up the next day, Zoe never did.


What a horrible way for life to end, never realizing what was going to happen. Thinking that night would be just like any other night.  


That night still haunts me, but honestly, many things do when I think back to that time.


I knew nothing about drug misuse then. Absolutely nothing. 

And few people were talking about drugs, the opioid epidemic (that would come, but much later), the relentless stigma attached to this health issue, and accidental overdose deaths.


After months of unimaginable grief, I started to feel so angry, and that was good because it was galvanizing. 

I knew we had to do something, not only to honor and remember Zoe, but we had to prevent the worst thing in the world from happening to others.


But as I said, I knew nothing, and that’s where I had to start.


My husband and I thought the obvious way to find an answer was to enlist those who were doing cutting edge research - - let’s learn why this happened to Zoe, and if we understand the “why’s” we can save other lives.


But we learned that the research was inconclusive.  I wanted to know what made Zoe less resilient and so terribly vulnerable. And I wanted to know what parents could do, so their children would be protected.  But there were no definitive answers to those questions back then.


So, we turned to prevention, hoping that would provide answers.


Let’s prevent this in the first place.  We’ll be an example, putting ourselves out here, being a face of this health issue and telling Zoe’s Story. This is my Zoe, this is what a victim of an overdose death can look like, and if it looks like my daughter, believe me, it can look like yours or your loved one.


But when we began talking to parents and schools, few could or would fathom that this could happen to them.  Maybe your kid, but not mine was what people seemed to think.


I spent years trying to get people to open their eyes, to see that drug misuse doesn’t discriminate, it can happen to anyone. Most didn’t want to acknowledge that.


And too many felt, as people had years ago with sex education, if we don’t talk about it, maybe it will go away. Let’s not give our kids any ideas.

Big mistake.


But we continued talking to anyone open enough to listen.


Eventually with so much resistance, we realized we needed to alter and expand the way we looked at this health issue.


We realized that we needed to accept that some people are going to use drugs.  No matter what we or others say or do.  That was important to understand and accept.


Now, fast forward to today, less kids are using drugs, opioids, etc., (kids did hear what was being said), but tragically many more are dying. 


Less use, but more deaths?  Why?


Fentanyl has been the deadly game-changer.

With such an enormous supply of fentanyl - - using drugs, just recreationally, has become a game of Russian roulette.  Because many drugs are now being contaminated with fentanyl.


So, we are committed to harm reduction, because if you really care about others, and value every life without judgement, harm reduction is the way.


We distribute Narcan. Everyone everywhere should have Narcan and know how to use it (so simple). And now, it’s even over-the-counter.


We also advocate for the distribution of fentanyl test strips so that if someone is going to use a drug, they can be sure it’s not adulterated and deadly.


We’re working hard to fight stigma, so that everyone, no matter what their health issue, receives intelligent, compassionate and humane care and medical treatment - - the kind of response that everyone deserves without adverse judgment.


One thing that Zoe hopefully is proud of - - when something didn’t work, we kept going. We stayed open to learning more, we never shut out ideas just because we didn’t fully understand them.


My dearest sweetest, my Zoe, I miss you every single day, life is just wrong without you.


Let’s not lose any more lives.  

As my husband’s mom used to say, “where there is life there is hope.”


We have done many Narcan trainings in and around NYC, and elsewhere.  We have also given Narcan kits to friends who’ve asked for them.


In early 2023, within a 10-day period, two of our friends, on two separate occasions, saw someone unconscious, one in the subway and one in Penn Station.  Each of them used the Narcan kits that we gave them.  Each of them saved the life of the person who was down.  


It can be scary approaching a stranger who is unconscious.  But they did.  They are heroes.


Below one of those friends, Jolanta Benal, recounts the experience:


Narcan: So Handy!


Got on the G train at Fulton Street and what did I see but a man lying face-down on the platform and twitching. I exchanged glances with another woman who seemed to have just arrived and when I couldn’t find my phone she called 911, at which point it dawned on me that I had a Narcan nasal spray in my bag and that it was maybe about to come in handy.


I went over to the man (still twitching) and yelled at him. No response (still twitching). I rolled him over and yelled at him a little more. No response (still twitching). I couldn’t quite bring myself to do a sternal rub, because he didn’t look as though he’d been near running water in a while, so I went straight to breaking out my Narcan and delivering a dose, incidentally, getting snot all over my hand. He roused. And then the cops showed up. One of them gave me a pair of exam gloves, I got on the next train, and that was that: lifesaving turns out to require a minimum of effort. Quite anti-climactic, except for how you feel pretty good about it later and look forward to washing your hands.


Jolanta Benal,

Brooklyn, NY

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