Rising abuse of opiates touches Fitchburg
In the summer of 2009, Kara Czerwonka seemed to be putting her life back together.
After graduating that June from Verona Area High School, the 18-year-old Fitchburg resident was living at home with her parents, working full-time at a horse stable in the Town of Dunn and prepping her beloved horse, Mr. Hip Hop, for a national competition.
Over the previous year, Czerwonka had battled addiction, first to prescription painkillers and later to heroin. After months of recovery programs and counseling, her family hoped she was in the clear.
“We thought, OK, we got this licked, Kara will be fine,” her father, Dan Czerwonka, recalled.
But on Sept. 1, Kara relapsed. She used heroin, overdosed and was found dead in her bedroom.
“I thought we were past it all again,” Dan said in an interview with the Star last month. “But that’s how you are. You want to believe so damn bad.
“But that isn’t how it works.”
Czerwonka’s death devastated her friends and family. But it was also one more statistic in a trend of rising opiate abuse that has alarmed area health and lawenforcement officials for years.
In 2006, there were 123 hospitalizations in Dane County from heroin or prescription opiate overdoses, according to data from the department of Public Health for Madison and Dane County (PHMDC). By 2012, there were 300, a 144 percent increase. In 2003, 19 people died from overdoses. That figure peaked at 61 in 2011 before falling to 49 in 2012. Similar trends exist statewide, as overdoses tripled between 2002 and 2012, from 824 to 2,457.
And those stats might just be the “tip of the iceberg,” said Lisa Bullard-Cawthorne, a health educator with PHMDC. That’s because many overdose victims who don’t die or get hospitalized go unreported.
Much of the attention in Dane County and the state lately has focused on heroin, which about five or six years ago began to resurface as a cheaper alternative to painkillers for opiate addicts. But opiate-based prescription painkillers – such as Vicodin or Oxycontin – haven’t gone away, either. They still account for nearly two-thirds of Dane County’s overdoses, Bullard-Cawthorne notes, and three-quarters of opiate users – recovering or current – say their addiction started with prescription pain meds.
Kara Czerwonka was no exception. Dan thinks she first tried painkillers obtained from a classmate late in her junior year. She got hooked and eventually moved to heroin. When the family found out, they were “shocked.”
After a year of battling her addiction, she died in her bedroom that was lined with trophies and ribbons from a happy childhood.
“She wasn’t a bad kid, she was a great kid,” Dan said. “That’s another reason I thought everything would be OK.”
In Fitchburg, local officials stop short of saying heroin and other opiates are rampant. But police and emergency personnel say an uptick in overdoses in recent years has remained steady.
Police and EMS officials here have only tracked heroin- or opiate-specific data for a couple of years. The PHMDC, however, has data showing the number of drug-overdose hospitalizations by zip code between 2007 and 2011. While Fitchburg spans several ZIP codes, its most populous – 53711 – had 145 hospitalizations during those years. That’s slightly higher than the rates for communities surrounding Madison.
Fitch-Rona EMS ambulances began carrying Narcan, a drug used to counteract overdoses from heroin or other drugs, more than a decade ago. Data kept since 2011 shows that Fitch-Rona first responders administered it 73 times that year, 37 times in 2012 and 54 times last year, said Cindy Deidrich, Fitch-Rona’s deputy chief.
Fitchburg police made 13 heroin-related arrests in 2012, 11 in 2013 and two through March of this year, said Lt. Chad Brecklin. They also responded to 13 overdose calls last year and 19 in 2012.
Often, users who overdose are found in parking lots or gas station bathrooms on the city’s north side, but heroin-related incidents have occurred in more rural parts of Fitchburg, too, he said.
The “resurgence” of heroin has been noticeable for at least four years, Brecklin said, while it was “hardly on the radar” for most of his 15-plus years in law enforcement.
In March, 23-year-old Milton Moore of Fitchburg was sentenced to seven years in prison for selling the heroin that killed a Lodi teenager in 2012. Last December, local authorities had to revive a 55-year-old man who was found unresponsive when authorities were about to search his Greenway Cross apartment during an ongoing heroin investigation.
In August 2011, Fitchburg police arrested two Madison men after finding 25 grams of heroin during a late-night traffic stop on Leopold Way.
The spike in opiate abuse has fueled other crimes, such as burglaries, forgeries and robberies, by addicts desperate to pay for their habit, Brecklin said.
One prominent example was in 2009, when Justin M. Simpson of Fitchburg went on a three-week armed robbery spree, hitting three gas stations, two convenience stores and a tanning salon in Madison to feed his $100-a-day heroin habit. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Almost all heroin in Dane County comes to Madison via Chicago, said Lt. Jason Freedman of the Dane County Narcotics Task Force. While most users still come to Madison for the drug, he said dealers are traveling more to the suburbs in recent years.
“I’m very confident this is not an urban-only problem,” Freedman said.
While prices fluctuate, Freedman said a gram of heroin typically sells for between $120 and $150 in the Madison area. That’s enough for three to 10 doses, depending on the user.
Bullard-Cawthorne and others aired concerns that first-time users of heroin or painkillers are starting at younger ages.
But while opiate use appears to be rising, it’s doubtful that local teens are using them in big numbers, according to the 2012 Dane County Youth Assessment survey.
In the Oregon School District, just over half of high school students said they’d tried alcohol or illegal drugs before, and nearly half of seniors said they’d ridden in a car driven by someone who’d been drinking. By contrast, more than 98 percent of respondents said they’d never tried heroin, while 93 percent said they’d never illegally used prescription drugs. Both figures mirror county-wide stats.
“The numbers obviously are not huge,” said Amy Miller, OSD’s director of community education. “But in our world, any number is bad because the risk of death from an opiate is so much greater.”
Similarly, 98 percent of VAHS respondents said they’d never tried heroin, while 96 percent said they’d never illegally used prescription drugs. Both figures are near or better than county norms.
Asked whether heroin or other opiates have become a growing concern at VAHS in the past half-dozen years, principal Pam Hammen said in an email that the school hasn’t noticed an increase.
At Oregon High School, student assistance program coordinator Lisa Barleen facilitates alcohol and other drug abuse educational groups for students struggling with those substances.
In her first year at OHS in 2011, Barleen said she knew of one student who’d used heroin. That number “has grown,” she said, though she doesn’t have precise numbers.
She’s heard stories of teens who buy heroin in Madison and serve as “mules,” transporting it elsewhere for others as a way to fund their own habit. She says seeing teens struggling with addiction is hard to watch.
“These kids are super people under all that (struggle),” she said. “But it does change them.”
As awareness of opiate abuse has grown, so have efforts to combat it, Bullard-Cawthorne said.
One example is the Safe Communities initiative of Madison and Dane County, a program that, for example, has pushed for med-drop boxes in communities to eradicate supplies of painkillers and is reaching out to the medical and dental profession to curb how many of the drugs are prescribed.
She said there’s still work to be done to see addiction as a disease that requires treatment, not just punishment. And, she added, stigmas that addicts are “junkies” on the street are outdated.
“It’s just this wrong perception,” she said. “These are your neighbors, your neighbors’ kids. It’s a wide spectrum of people.”
Dan Czerwonka knows that all too well. Four-and-a-half years after Kara’s death, he’s still heartbroken. But that hasn’t stopped him from trying to help other families avoid what his went through.
Last year, Czerwonka participated in “The Fly Effect,” a statewide multimedia campaign launched by the Department of Justice to raise awareness about heroin abuse in Wisconsin.
Dan told his story on camera, and clips from those interviews are still being used in radio and television ads and on a website, theflyeffect.com.
“I think, what did I ever do, what did she ever do, to deserve this?” he says in the video.
On March 7, Czerwonka and DOJ spokesperson Dana Brueck also spoke to several classes of VAHS juniors about the perils of heroin. It was the first time he’d stepped foot in the school all three of his kids attended.
After telling them about his daughter, his message is simple.
“Just don’t ever try it,” he said. “It’s not like you snuck some beer out of your dad’s fridge or something. You can do it one time and be dead or addicted.”
In April 2010, Marcell L. Hudson, the man who sold the heroin that killed Kara, was sentenced to five years in prison by a Dane County judge. That didn’t bring much solace, Dan Czerwonka said.
“I don’t hardly think about him at all,” he said.
Instead, he hopes that by sharing Kara’s story, others will avoid her fate.
“Maybe some parent wouldn’t have to live through what we lived through,” he said.