When the Medical Examiner’s Office released the body of 25-year-old Joseph Patterson to his mother Lisa Hicks, arrangements were made to take her son to a funeral home.
“I had no clue what fentanyl was until Joe was killed,” Hicks of Gwinnett County told The Times in a recent interview.
Gainesville Police said Patterson was sold pills containing fentanyl made to look like milder oxycodone by his friend Casey Trichel, who is serving time in prison in a 30-year sentence after accepting a plea deal over his friend’s death.
When her son’s clothes were turned over to her by the funeral home, Hicks said that to her surprise, she went through his wallet and found the pills that killed him. She held the pills in her hands.
“I was handling them with my hands because I didn’t know what they were,” she said. “My husband knocked them out of my hand. He told me those pills make you sick.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta warn that fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine and is the lead culprit in America’s opioid epidemic that in 2015 killed more than 33,000 people, including Hick’s only son.
Hicks said it has turned her world upside down.
“We were all in college when Joe was killed,” she said. “We had to step back. I was finishing my master’s and my husband was finishing up his bachelor’s. We stopped all our plans. My husband went back to work.”
Hicks said she and her husband, Julian Ellis, are now raising little Joe Patterson, who was born almost two months after his father died. They both work full time. He is self-employed doing home maintenance; she recently went to work as an operations manager at a manufacturing company, leaving a similar position at another company.
“I’m glad to be getting away from the other company I was working with when Joe died,” she said. “I don’t know, people look at you differently when you’ve had a child who has died from opioids.”
Undaunted, Hicks is part of a growing movement by people who have lost loved ones killed by opioids to speak out and warn others of the national opioid epidemic. They offer help, support and solace to families that are suffering a similar fate.
“I’ve communicated with people in Canada and all over North America,” Hicks said. “I’ve reached out to people all over the country and all over the state.”
In so doing, Hicks finds that the people she’s reaching out to are for the most part not very different from her. They come from white middle-class families. The victims tend to be young men in their teens to upper 20s.
Hicks said the faces of the victims can be seen on websites started by her friends Chuck Wilson ( www.fentanylgeorgia.com), and Jennifer Hodge (www.realty4rehab.org).
Hall County Coroner Marion Merck said that fits the profile he encounters in his work. He said every three months, his office handles five or so deaths tied to opioid overdose. Nationally, the rate of deaths by opioid abuse is more than 90 daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“It’s mostly young people,” Merck said. “They are mostly young caucasians.”
After struggling with her son’s addiction and seeing how expensive treatment can be, Hodge came up with the idea for Realty4Rehab in 2014. The plan called for her to give one-third of her Realtor’s commission to help pay treatment for a recovering addict.
When the Forsyth County single mother got the go-ahead from her broker to follow through with the plan and encourage other real estate agents to do the same, Hodge told son Robbie the great news. They were both excited to be doing something to help others fight drug addiction.
Hodge said she thought Robbie had turned the corner after going through drug addiction treatment at Three Dimensional Life in Gainesville. In December 2016, just a couple of weeks before Christmas, Hodge returned home to find her 23-year-old son on the bathroom floor suffering from an overdose. He died at the hospital.
Ben Armstrong, executive director of Three Dimensional Life, which treats young men ages 14-19, was in the hospital room when the medical staff said Robbie Hodge wasn’t going to make it.
“I had Robbie who died and then I had a friend who died within the same week from the same thing,” Armstrong said.
“Jennifer, as soon as that happened, she was out there speaking about addiction,” Armstrong continued. “She talked about how (Robbie) had overdosed, about how he’d been on drugs and how he thought he had beat his demons. (Jennifer) was very real and open and honest of what had happened.”
In contrast, Armstrong said the family of his friend who had died from an overdose, simply added to his obituary that he had “died peacefully in his sleep.”
Armstrong said progress will not be made unless people are willing to speak out against this epidemic killing their children. He said there’s too much “head in the sand mentality” still to overcome.
“For Jennifer to be open and real and honest about that, it’s really the first step toward solving the puzzle,” Armstrong said.