Ventura: Don't let another child be lost to heroin

Linda Ventura lost her son Thomas to heroin addiction two years ago. Now she runs a non-profit that aims to support addicts and lobby for better addiction treatment.

I was on the Long Island Rail Road headed for Penn Station. As on every workday, I was preoccupied with meeting agendas, my hectic schedule, and the responsibilities of being the single mother of three.

Suddenly, my phone rang. I will never forget the uncontrollable sobbing in the voice of my youngest son, Andrew, as he choked out the words: "He's dead, Tom's dead!"

I sat in shock on the moving train for what seemed forever before it occurred to me that I had to get home to Kings Park. As my body shook, I went from car to car in search of a conductor. I then blurted out: "My son is dead, stop this train!"


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The conductor ordered an emergency stop in Cold Spring Harbor. With no taxis or police cars in sight, I wandered the station aimlessly. A woman rolled down her car window and said, "If you will trust me, I will take you wherever you need to go."

When I arrived home, Suffolk police had sealed my house as a crime scene. Heroin had claimed my 21-year-old son, Thomas, on March 14, 2012.

The rawness of that tragic day came back to me last week when Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died at 46 from an apparent heroin overdose -- casting a spotlight on the nation's heroin epidemic.

The deaths of Hoffman and my son underscore that sobriety is a lifelong journey -- and tenuous at best. Hoffman had unlimited funds and access to treatment, but that was no guarantee that sobriety would be permanent. And for addicts of lesser means, there's insufficient treatment.

That's why 50 Long Islanders and I lobbied in Albany last week for Senate Bill S4623, which would give decision-making authority for addiction treatment, including which type of care and for how long, to a medical professional.

The legislation amends state insurance law to ensure that patients suffering from drug and alcohol dependency get the lifesaving care they need when they need it by directing insurance companies to greenlight authorization and payment. If you pay your insurance premiums, you should be able to get treatment.

We need this legislation.

For a decade, heroin has strolled down Long Island's tree-lined streets, luring our young with its cheap cost and wide availability. Once it grabs hold, heroin morphs into the beast of addiction.

Thomas was a bright adventurous boy who grew into a sensitive young man, a star athlete at Kings Park High School who dreamed of playing lacrosse in college. But from age 19 until his death, my son attended several outpatient rehabilitation programs, several five-day detox programs and two 28-day inpatient programs.

He had been home for just one day from a 21-day rehabilitation center when he died. The night before, Thomas was clearheaded, talking about what he wanted to accomplish. It's a memory I cherish most: My daughter, Jennifer, was not home, but my two boys were being brothers, roughhousing, laughing and eating. At 7:15 the next morning, Andrew found Thomas dead of an overdose.

Our family dynamics began to change in 2004: Within three short years, my children lost three grandparents, and my husband and I divorced. My middle child began to use drugs and his life ultimately became consumed by heroin.

Amid all the stress of losing loved ones, Thomas began to self-medicate with marijuana, which opened the door to other drugs. As a family, we watched powerlessly as a healthy, vibrant teenager quit sports, and became broken and imprisoned by this insidious opiate. Heroin robbed me of my precious Thomas and left an unrecognizable young man. He became a mean, deviant thief.

Thomas's story will repeat itself if we don't act. About 669,000 people older than 12 used heroin in 2012, according to a survey by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. About 156,000 of them used the drug for the first time.

Thomas tried to quit heroin several times before he died. Like Hoffman and many others, he left this world far too early.

Let's try to end that trend.

Linda Ventura of Kings Park, who lost her middle son to an overdose, is the founder of Thomas' Hope, a foundation that promotes drug awareness, prevention and advocacy.

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