The opioid epidemic has impacted thousands of families across the country. And the city of St. Louis hasn't been immune to the problem either.
Many parents share the same story as Dellwood resident Patti Fitzwalter, a woman who has seen the horrors of the opioid epidemic first hand. But, like many, she turned the pain she had after a terrible loss and turned it into a mission.
"When we found out our son was doing heroin, we were completely shocked and taken by surprised and blindsided," Fitzwalter said.
On August 24th, 2014, Patti Fitzwalter’s son Michael Fitzwalter,22, died after overdosing on heroin. She found him in her basement. She said his addiction started with Xanax and eventually onto painkillers and heroin.
Michael ended up doing two stints in rehab in Florida. But, when he got out, he used again. When he passed away, addiction and opioid abuse was something Patti didn’t understand, she said. Patti said she tried to help, but during that time she didn’t know exactly how.
"Watching your child self-destruct and not being able to do anything to stop it is like the worst hell that there is on earth," she said.
But then she took the pain she felt that day and turned it into a mission. An initiative she and her husband created in North St. Louis County called Walking for Wellness: Stop the Heroin. It was inspired by the same initiative in St. Peters created by a woman named Gee Vigna, who lost her daughter Nikki to addiction in 2013. The organizations rarely miss a day, as they find time to walk once a week to raise awareness about the opioid problem.
The epidemic is an issue that has now caught the attention of the White House. On Thursday, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. For Patti, she does not want a parent to go through what she had to.
"This problem is of a magnitude that is indescribable," she said.
The St. Louis Fire Department is also fighting the opioid epidemic like many emergency responders across the country. The fire department’s firefighters started carrying Narcan, the drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, within the last year, said Captain Leon Whitener.
The reason is because how of many the overdoes the department has been responding to over the year. Last year in September, the department administered Narcan, 139 times. This year in the same month of September, that number has skyrocketed to 237. Since last year, the department has used the drug more 1,600 times.
"It's not going away," said Captain Leon Whitener. “This epidemic takes no prisoners.”
And because of that, Patti Fitzwalter, believes President Trump's decision to declare the crisis a public health emergency could only help.
"Opening up funding and any amount of funding in anyway is definitely a good start," she said.
The Walking for Wellness: Stop the Heroin North County organization will end its walks after this year. The time was right for her, Patti said.
The St. Peters' organization will also end its walks after this year.