On March 30, Bridgette Kurtzke died of a heroin overdose hours after checking herself out of rehabilitation at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville. To some extent, she fell through one of the many gaps in a system that has too few beds for addicts and too little awareness of how to access help. But Kurtzke, 28, also chose to go with addicts and use drugs that night. That doesn’t make what happened to her any less tragic, or make the pain her parents, brother and sister are feeling any less real.
Politicians, treatment providers and communities on Long Island have been overrun by an opioid drug crisis that grew far faster than society could respond. Now a furious game of catch-up is underway. Bridgette’s father, Kevin Kurtzke, of Medford, wrote a letter to Newsday to tell the story of Bridgette’s death. And he, rehab professionals involved in her case and state officials agree that while it’s difficult to apportion blame for her death, it does highlight problems with the system.
According to Kevin, Bridgette didn’t have addiction issues until a car accident led to back surgery a couple of years ago. Her recovery included pain pills, which led to heroin in 2015.
Kevin said Bridgette was a loving daughter who mostly worked as a secretary before her trouble started. She was diagnosed as bipolar in her youth and dropped out of Patchogue-Medford High School, but created a stable life as an adult until she became addicted.
In January, Bridgette took her first try at rehab. She completed a program at South Oaks. But on Facebook on Feb. 3, she wrote, “I was discharged from C.K Post Rehab today, just because of the verbal abuse & threats that I said. But I am remorseful & I said my apologies to the one’s that were owed . . . Hello my name is Bridgette & I AM an addict. Went to my 1st AA Meeting tonight. . .”
Her father said Bridgette had trouble with authority and could be combative. Over time, her Facebook page reflected her struggle with addiction. One note she posted said, “Sometimes you really need to hit the very rock bottom for you to come out on top. You just wait & see [expletive]!!! I’m going to conquer the Year 2016!! I’m taking my life back, and I’m in control.”
Out on her own, Bridgette used heroin again, then checked back into South Oaks. She told her parents she had overdosed, was revived with Narcan and was ready to get serious. She began looking into long-term treatment and wanted to go to St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment & Recovery Center, an upstate facility offering a 90-day inpatient program. Bridgette was released from South Oaks on St. Patrick’s Day, but St. Joseph’s had no room.
St. Joseph’s chief executive Bob Ross said the bed shortage is due to heroin admissions, which have increased 50 percent in recent years and now include as many as 80 percent of his patients. His facility would not have space for six weeks when Bridgette sought a bed. Ross called her death a tragedy, and said his organization is trying to expand its programs, particularly for women.
Within a week, Bridgette relapsed and ended up back at South Oaks. Staff there did not return Newsday’s calls for information about her stays. Kevin Kurtzke, himself a recovering alcoholic who understands addiction, said he, Bridgette and her brother, sister and mother were frustrated and confused about how to get her help.
On March 30, she checked out of South Oaks after several days, lying to her parents about who was coming to get her. She was picked up by the friend of someone she met in rehab, taken to a house in Copaigue that her father said had been the scene of a bust for guns and drugs two days earlier, and was dead of an overdose by that night. Her father wants to know why the house wasn’t boarded up if it regularly saw criminal activity. He also wants to know where the family could have turned for advocacy and advice.
New York State has an Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services whose website enables the public to search for open beds anywhere in the state. It explains programs each facility offers. The agency also has patient advocates who can direct families and addicts to resources, tell them their rights and help them navigate the system. But in an interview, officials conceded that many New Yorkers don’t know that the agency offers that type of help. One official said she had just ordered another 200 brochures to be printed, which sounds like a tiny swipe at a huge problem. Agency officials and rehabilitation professionals also said there is still a shortage of recovery resources, too little addiction prevention and problems with insurance providers denying or blocking coverage. They seek more rehab facilities, and they want changes in laws. In particular, they said a mandatory 72-hour emergency hold for those who overdose on heroin would help addicts get into recovery before they hit the streets in a state of painful opioid withdrawal.
An investigation into details of Bridgette Kurtzke’s treatment and death is being done by the state. And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced a new task force on opioid addiction on May 10. A key duty will be to propose legislation to confront the addiction crisis before lawmakers end the current session in June.
Opiate overdoses took 442 lives on Long Island in 2015. And no one is taking the crisis lightly. But the pace of bureaucratic and societal change is proving deadly for people like Bridgette Kurtzke, and heartbreaking for families.