More than 300 people gathered at the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame to memorialize lives lost to drugs and talk about how to stem the tide of new deaths.
It was a few minutes after 8 p.m. when Michael Crawley’s harmonica drawled the sweet strains of “Amazing Grace” and a few hundred people grabbed candles.
A mile away, though they couldn’t see it, just as they recited the names of those lost to addiction, the lights lining Henley Bridge turned purple to commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day.
The candlelight vigil was the culmination of a three-hour event, which moved from Volunteer Landing, in sight of the bridge, to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame because of rain. It’s the third such observance TN Overdose Prevention, a grassroots advocacy organization, has sponsored.
More than 300 people attended to hear speakers, learn about area resources and make memorials.
And though for many, it was a day of sadness, remembering lives cut short, time after time a message of hope echoed through the hall’s center rotunda: “We do recover.”
Speaker Tyler Trotter asked for a moment of silence in memory of his brother-in-law, who died last year after an overdose. The noisy hall quieted, broken only by a sob from Trotter’s wife, Laurie.
“He loved so much,” Laurie Trotter said. “He just couldn’t love himself.”
His brother-in-law “didn’t get any of the resources we have … to recover from the disease of addiction,” said Tyler Trotter, himself in recovery and now a barber and owner of the Clean Cut Grooming Lounge in South Knoxville. “We have to ask for help.”
Just from 2015 to 2016, the number of drug-related death cases in Knox County increased by 31 percent – from 170 deaths in 2015 to 224 deaths in 2016, according to the Regional Forensic Center – and tentative figures indicate the death count will be even higher for 2017.
More than 18 percent of the total deaths in Knox County last year were related to drugs, the regional forensic center said, and fentanyl in various forms was the most prominent drug found, up from the seventh-most common in 2015. The opioid is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, but its analogues can be up to 10,000 times stronger.
Heather Ruzic of Sweetwater said she lost her 20-year-old son, Caleb, to an accidental fentanyl overdose in December 2015. Caleb overcame a methamphetamine addiction that started at age 16, Ruzic said, only to become addicted to pain pills.
“He was sold a pill on the street, a fake stamped Percocet … a fentanyl-laced pill,” Ruzic said. “Something I didn’t even know existed took my son.”
Now Ruzic runs a Facebook group, “Fentanyl Kills,” that features photos of people who have succumbed to the drug, as well as news related to its increasing availability. At the event, she was passing out information and selling “Fentanyl Kills” T-shirts as a fundraiser.
“It’s not only in heroin and the fake pressed pills,” Ruzic said, “it’s in meth and cocaine and now they’re saying marijuana.”
Other booths offered training for dispensing the opioid antidote naloxone; free hepatitis C tests; information on addiction services; and children’s crafts and face-painting. Outside the hall, people decorated purple memorial crosses with names, placing them in rows on a pair of long tables.
“She was my best friend ever … she was like my sister,” said Reanna Wilhite, placing a cross in the memory of 36-year-old Shawntay Jones, who died nearly two years ago. “She was beautiful, she had a kind heart, she had a kind spirit.”
Next to her, a friend with a series of sobriety milestone tags hanging from her own bag confided the names on her crosses belonged to one friend lost a couple months ago, another just the day before.
More than 30 thousand people need recovery services, said Dr. Tom Reach, medical director of Watauga Recovery Centers, but there are enough resources to serve only about a third of them. Among Tennessee Overdose Prevention’s goals is more funding for the state to provide those services.
Knox County Sheriff’s Office Assistant Chief Deputy Lee Tramel spoke of an “evolution” in law enforcement attitudes toward addiction.
“Lock them up, and throw away the key – that’s what we used to do,” Tramel said. “We didn’t understand the power of addiction like we do today … the effect that it has on the way you think, on your thought process. But today it’s a different day. We understand more than we did two years ago, and we’re working toward that end of understanding more and more every day.
“When people can see you, former addicts, and how you’re living today, it gives an addict in the throes of addiction right now hope for tomorrow. ... We all know, and there’s proof here tonight, that it works.”