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Vigil remembers lives lost to overdose

By Matt Shortall
Posted 9/3/21

LIBERTY — In recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, a vigil was held Tuesday, August 31 on Sullivan Avenue in Liberty. 

A crowd of people gathered outside the Sullivan …

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Vigil remembers lives lost to overdose

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LIBERTY — In recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, a vigil was held Tuesday, August 31 on Sullivan Avenue in Liberty. 

A crowd of people gathered outside the Sullivan BOCES offices in remembrance of those lost to addiction and in support of the family and friends they left behind.

It was a solemn evening organized by Sullivan BOCES, Sullivan 180, Sullivan County Public Health, the Sullivan County Drug Task Force and the Kingfisher Project.

Speaking to those assembled, Alan Kesten talked about his up close and personal experience with the opioid epidemic in Sullivan County. In addition to serving as County Coroner, Kesten is owner of the Yellow Cab taxi company based out of Monticello. He’s also a licensed funeral director as well as an EMT and a firefighter in the Monticello Fire District.

“That puts me smack in the epicenter of the reason we’re all here today,” Kesten said.  “I’m a guy who administers Narcan over and over ... sadly, often to the same people.”

Kesten said in the past six months he’s experienced both the loss of a family member and the son of a close friend.

“My cousin was a lifelong addict. He had great family and friends, a very successful career, had been through several rehabs, yet none long enough to overcome the demon that ruled his existence,” he said.

According to Kesten, the Sullivan County Coroner’s Office handled 34 overdose atalities in 2019, representing 30 percent of the morgue’s cases. In 2020, they handled 41 overdose fatalities, representing 34 percent of morgue cases. So far in 2021, there have been 37 deaths, or 42 percent of cases with four months still left in the year.

Dr. Robert Dufour, District Superintendent and CEO of Sullivan BOCES, talked about how his father used to volunteer at the Elmont Drug Council on Long Island back in the 1970s.

“When he told me about his work there, he shared the sad part that you always knew when you failed, but you never knew when you were successful,” Dufour stated. “That message always stayed with me throughout the years. Our work on the Sullivan County Drug Task Force is very similar to the work my father did. Our failures show up in the statistics and in the paper. Our successes are rarely seen.”

The NaloxBox Project is an initiative spearheaded locally by the Sullivan County Drug Task Force to make Narcan available in all public buildings in Sullivan County.

Dufour praised Narcan as an important tool in the fight against opioid overdoses.

“For Narcan to be beneficial, it must first be accessible. Narcan training and accessibility is therefore necessary to save lives in Sullivan County,” he said. 

Dufour said they started with public schools and worked with Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther’s office, local Rotary Clubs, the United Way of Sullivan County and Sullivan 180 to raise over $7,000 to purchase a NaloxBox for each school in Sullivan County. They will be placed in easily accessible spaces next to the AED systems.

District Attorney Meagan Galligan spoke about her sister’s struggles with addiction in the 1990s and how it impacted her family. She said her sister eventually sought help and spent more than a year in long-term inpatient treatment.

“Since then she’s been married and had two productive and very lovely children. So she’s a success story where many unfortunately are not,” Galligan said. “[Narcan] is a ‘magic bullet’ of sorts, but it’s not enough and won’t get us exactly where we need to be. What we need is all of the community supports we’re pulling together in the [Drug] Task Force.”

Kesten knows better than most the life-saving power of Narcan, but was in agreement that more has to be done to provide treatment, both long-term and immediate.

He said governments should find more funding to make this happen and insurance companies need to extend the time periods for treatment beyond 30 days.

“Every time we administer Narcan we save a life. We literally bring someone back from the dead,” Kesten said. “[But] we need to drastically change our thinking and focus on addiction treatment as opposed to Narcan, which is relevant and very important ... but we need to go further.

“I’m tired of saying ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ We are failing,” Kesten said.

Other speakers during the vigil and press conference included Commissioner of Health and Family Services, John Liddle, Deputy Commissioner of Health and Family Services, Wendy Brown, Chief Executive Officer at Garnet Health Medical Center - Catskills, Johnathan Schiller, Julie Pisall of the Kingfisher Project, members of local faith organizations and individuals in recovery.

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