BOYDEN—Every day 192 people die of a drug overdose in America, according to the Addiction Policy Forum.
Destroying the stigma attached to drug addiction might be a way to bring that number down, and journalist Angela Kennecke of Sioux Falls, SD, is trying to do just that.
She gave a presentation in Boyden on Wednesday to about 80 people detailing her daughter Emily Groth’s death from an overdose.
Groth was 21 years old when she was discovered on the floor of her Sioux Falls apartment on May 16, 2018. She had injected herself with heroin which was laced with fentanyl. The latter is a prescription opioid made for severe pain such as what is associated with advanced cancer cases.
“With this disease comes so much shame and that has to stop,” Kennecke said. “Half of the country does not know addiction is a disease and it is of the brain.”
Kennecke played the audience a video that explained why addiction is a disease. The video was called “Addiction: The Hijacker” and presented an explanation of how substance abuse damages brain tissue function in the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.
The limbic system is responsible for basic survival needs — food, shelter, etc. — and rewards a person with dopamine when those needs are met. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision making and impulse control.
Drugs take over this part of the brain and hijack the dopamine, leading addicts to believe that drugs are essential for survival.
After an extended period of drug use the brain tissue is damaged but can recover once an addict is in recovery.
‘Alarms went off’
An exceptional artist, Groth received first place in the South Dakota High School Activities Association visual arts category for her piece “Clairvoyance.”
She also received a scholarship to attend the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. Groth was a high school athlete running hurdles in track, cheering at games and competing in gymnastics.
Kennecke described her blond-haired daughter as a silly risk-taker who loved Christmas and was a ham for the camera. Groth also was a drug addict.
“It was evident the drug culture was attractive to her,” Kennecke said.
Kennecke had been covering the growing Sioux Falls opioid crisis as an anchor for KELO-TV. She knew her daughter was dealing with addiction and the family had scheduled an appointment for her with an interventionist on May 19, 2018. Groth died three days before that appointment.
On the day of Groth’s death, Kennecke was trying to get a hold of her, sending her texts, but she never responded. Kennecke did not want to overwhelm her daughter and seem like the nagging mom as Groth’s drug use was a tense subject for the family.
“The more time I spent around her, the more alarms went off,” she said.
Groth had ceased creating works of art. She lost weight and her eyes appeared sunken. Groth picked at her face, missed family events and had lost her job.
Kennecke went into Costco to buy some flowers before going home for dinner. She sat in her car in the parking lot when she got a call from Groth’s father telling her that he thought Groth was dead. Kennecke drove to her daughter’s apartment building and saw ambulances, fire trucks, police officers and onlookers outside. She managed to get into the apartment.
“It was a horrible scene,” Kennecke said. “Paramedics were gathered around her. She was on the floor and hooked up to a machine. I asked if she had any vitals and they told me they were breathing for her. I dropped to my knees and started praying. Thirty minutes later they said they could not revive her. My prayer was not answered.”
‘Deserved to live’
Although she considers herself a wordsmith, Kennecke did not have any words to describe how she felt when she knew her daughter was dead.
“I have a hole in my heart that can never be healed,” she said.
Groth had six times the therapeutic amount of fentanyl for a large man in her system.
“She did not have a chance,” Kennecke said. “Nothing is going to bring her back. My beautiful girl deserved to live.”
The man who sold Groth the fentanyl-laced heroin — 24-year-old Devlin Tommeraasen — was sentenced in February to 10 years in state prison. He was caught when he overdosed in a Sioux Falls Hy-Vee bathroom shortly after he sold the drugs to Groth. Kennecke said she does not take joy in the fact Tommeraasen was sent to prison because he also is an addict. He was selling drugs to pay for his own addiction.
After Kennecke’s presentation she opened the floor for questions from the audience. She was asked how Groth’s addiction began and Kennecke said her daughter started using marijuana in high school. She did not want to say whether or not marijuana should be legalized but stated that it is not suitable for a developing brain. She urged young people that if they know of anyone who is using drugs to tell a trusted adult.
Kennecke has started a nonprofit foundation known as Emily’s Hope which is dedicated to ending the stigma of addiction, educating people about it and financially assisting people who might not be able to afford treatment.
Kennecke told the crowd she heard of treatment copays ranging $1,100-$6,000. Not everyone can afford that. Some people who can afford treatment might not seek it out because of bills that need to be paid. Emily’s Hope will pay a patient’s rent and utilities while in treatment.