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Milton mother speaks out about son's heroin death

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Anna Marie Lux
May 4, 2014

MILTON--Maybe a mother can sound the alarm in a way that makes a difference.

Barbara VanGalder found her son Clayton Smith on the bathroom floor Jan. 25 with a needle still in his arm.

He died from a heroin overdose.

Clayton's death is part of a tragic health problem leaving a trail of heartbroken families.

The 23-year-old is one of at least 251 deaths in Rock County since 2006 from overdoses of opiates, including heroin. Some were heroin-alone overdoses. Some were from heroin in combination with other opiate drugs. Some were from opiates other than heroin.

The number comes from Louis Smit, Rock County chief deputy/acting coroner.

Opiates are a group of drugs derived both naturally and synthetically that can numb the nervous system. Among the most dangerous is heroin, which is highly addictive and illegal. Some commonly prescribed opiates are morphine, Vicodin, Fentanyl, Codeine and Oxycontin, which are used for pain. They also are abused by people seeking highs.

“Rarely a day goes by where there is not a drug-related rescue call that goes out, most often within the cities of Janesville and Beloit and usually involving an opiate and/or one or more other drugs,” Smit said. “They seldom die from heroin alone.”

Most victims range in age from 20 to 45.

In 2012, Rock County had 64 opiate-related deaths. In 2013, the number dropped to 20, although 13 more cases still are pending final toxicology results. The cases most likely will be opiate-related, Smit said.

He believes the decline in deaths is due to the efforts of emergency medical personnel who use medicine to block the effects of heroin and other opiates on the central nervous system. Naloxone, commonly known by its brand name Narcan, can stop a heroin overdose and potentially save a life.

So far this year, Smit reports 26 opiate-related deaths, with 10 additional cases pending final toxicology results.

“There is no indication the trend is going to change,” he said.

If Clayton were still alive, he would be 24 today.

Some family members are going fishing, one of Clayton's favorite pastimes, to honor him. Barbara plans a cookout at her home, which she hopes to repeat annually to celebrate her son's birthday.

She shares his story to raise awareness about the rising use of heroin and other opiates and the profound sorrow they wreak on families. She hopes to ignite a community conversation to prevent more deaths.

“I was so wrapped up in saving my own son that I did not know others were having problems,” she said. “We all tried to get Clayton help. We talked with him. We cried with him. We begged him.”

Barbara, who lives in rural Milton, called her son every day during breaks at work to offer support.

But she could not force Clayton to check into a residential treatment program in Madison or Oshkosh. None exists locally.

Pleading for help, she talked to law enforcement, her family doctor and counselors, who said her adult son had to walk through the doors by choice.

But Clayton was fearful of withdrawal. His judgment was impaired by addiction, which prevented him from choosing the help he desperately needed, Barbara said.

Her son had at least two car accidents while he was high on heroin. He was arrested on a number of drug charges, including possession of drug paraphernalia. At the time of his death, Clayton had four pending court dates in four counties, including Rock.

Clayton's descent into drug abuse began with an accident at age 16. He fell out of the back of a moving pickup truck while helping friends move near Orfordville. Clayton shattered his skull, and a helicopter took him to University Hospital in Madison, where he remained in an induced coma for several days.

After the head trauma, the mild-mannered and happy Clayton became quick-tempered, depressed and moody. Because of the severity of his injuries, he could not go back to high school, and he never got a diploma.

The doctor sent Clayton home with a prescription of oxycodone painkillers.  Eventually, his doctor took him off the medicine cold turkey after he tested positive for marijuana. Clayton began buying illegal painkillers.

Eventually, he discovered heroin, which was cheaper than pills and easier to get.

“I don't know exactly when he started using it,” Barbara said. “I had never known anyone who did heroin.”

Like so many parents, Barbara thought of heroin as a problem of the big cities, confined to desperate people in dark allies. She had no idea the deadly drug had a foothold in Wisconsin's small towns and suburbs. She was surprised when she learned her son was using it.

Clayton lived off and on with his parents, who are divorced. For several months, he lived with his older brother Ricky Carlson in his rural home.

“I watched him go through withdrawal from heroin,” Ricky said. “He was doing really well for a while. He didn't have a car and couldn't go anywhere.”

Ricky, who travels internationally as part of his job, often called Clayton long distance to offer encouragement. When Clayton started using again, he stole from his family to pay for his all-consuming addiction.

“He got good at manipulating people,” Ricky said. “He stole a significant amount of money from me, and he somehow made me feel guilty about it.”

At Clayton's funeral, Barbara chose to be honest about what happened to her son.

“The pastor was kind and compassionate,” she said. “But he told it like it was. He explained why Clayton was in a casket.”

If Clayton could have seen the aftermath of his death, Ricky believes his brother never would have touched heroin again.

“It wasn't in his heart to hurt people,” he said.

Clayton's aunt Kathy Starostka of Janesville wants her nephew's story to heighten public awareness and to alert parents to the dangers of heroin use.

“Parents have no idea that their kids are getting involved with heroin,” she said. “They have no idea how widespread it is or how dangerous it is. They think it is for hard-core drug users.”

She added: “Kids need to know that heroin is not an innocent, feel-good drug. They say heroin is now more potent. If you get the super powerful stuff, it only takes seconds, and you are dead.”

She and Barbara want a better way for people who are addicted to get connected to help right away. They're concerned there's no residential treatment center in Rock County, where the problem of addiction touches and threatens so many lives.

“There needs to be more treatment facilities,” Kathy said. “Even trying to get an appointment for Clayton to have an assessment—which isn't even treatment—seemed to take forever.”

“I can't change what happened to my son,” Barbara said. “But, if I can save one life by telling my story, then maybe some good can come out of this.”

Need help with an addiction or know someone who does? Find a local treatment center at substanceabuseusa.org.



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