Recovering addicts and parents of overdose victims shared stories of grief and resilience Thursday at Nassau County’s Heroin Education Summit, a forum meant to bolster public awareness of Long Island’s opiate epidemic.
Speakers from all walks of life — firefighters, teachers, college students and retirees among them — warned of the perils of heroin and painkiller abuse, a day after Nassau reported a record 58 fatal heroin overdoses in 2015.
Nassau Assistant Chief Fire Marshal John Priest said his son Robert, a lieutenant in the East Meadow Fire Department, died of a heroin overdose in 2012.
“My son Rob looked less like a drug addict than anybody you could imagine,” Priest said. “He was young, he was handsome, he was athletic, he was a leader . . . and he was a drug addict.”
Priest found his 23-year-old son sitting up in bed, hands folded over his chest. “I went over to shake him and he was ashen gray, and he was ice cold,” he said.
“Take out of your mind the words ‘this won’t happen to me,’ ” Priest told the crowd. “It’s everywhere.”
About 200 people attended the summit, held at Coral House in Baldwin.
Another grieving parent, Valerie Labiak of Bellmore, spoke of losing her son Michael, a 26-year-old aspiring police officer, to a fatal opiate overdose in 2014.
Michael was slated to start using Vivitrol — a medication that helps keep addicts from relapsing — but had trouble getting timely access to the drug, his mother said.
“Michael overdosed and died alone on the Long Island Rail Road,” Labiak said. “We know our son would still be with us if he’d received that Vivitrol as planned.”
Several recovering heroin and painkiller addicts addressed the crowd, including Steven Dodge, 25, who urged opiate abusers not to give up.
“Addiction is 100 percent treatable,” he said.
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, as well as the police commissioners from both counties, shared stories of their own encounters with friends and loved ones who battled addiction to opiates.
The county leaders held a ceremonial signing establishing a joint overdose task force charged with investigating every heroin overdose on the Island in hopes of tracking the drugs to their source.
In Suffolk, there were at least 103 fatal heroin overdoses last year, according to preliminary data.