October 17, 2018
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‘It’s easy to shut addicts out. Instead, find help’: Dispatcher who heard her son’s overdose call brings message of hope

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Shelly Yankowsky is reflected in her son's gravestone in Glenburn. Shelly’s son Adam Yankowsky died in August 2017 of a drug overdose. Yankowsky, the Rev. Frank Murray, first responders and law enforcement officers have joined together to plan a healing service for those impacted by the Bangor area's opioid addiction crisis.

Shelly Yankowsky knew her son Adam was in trouble when her fellow Maine State Police dispatcher told her to leave the room as a call for an overdose victim came in on Aug. 1.

“That was the first time Adam died,” Yankowsky said when telling the story of her 25-year-old son’s eventual death last summer.

“He went to the emergency room after they Narcaned him twice, and they just sent him home, without any information about what to do next or where to get help,” she continued. “My husband and I were a little blown away by that. We thought, ‘Holy, he died.’ When police go on domestic violence calls, they give information about resources to the victims.”

Yankowsky’s husband also works for the Maine State Police, as a detective.

On the morning of Aug. 7, Yankowsky found her son dead in the bedroom he’d grown up in at the family home in Glenburn. This time he could not be revived.

“When I went down the hall and opened his bedroom door, the first thing I saw was our two dogs sitting on the bed looking down at Adam,” she said. “He was sitting on the floor. It was like he was folded in half at his waist. So, his head was completely by his feet. He had a cigarette and a lighter in his hands like he was going to go out for a smoke.”

Adam was one of 418 people who died in Maine last year of a drug overdose.

The impact of those deaths ripples, out beyond immediate family to friends, treatment providers, employers, schools, first responders and the legal community. The crisis reaches so far that those who respond to it on a professional level, such as Shelly Yankowsky and her husband, now must also face it in their own homes.

Yankowsky, who said her son died after snorting heroin laced with fentanyl, and others whose lives have been impacted by the opioid crisis are coming together in hopes of taking a step toward healing. In what appears to be the first event of its kind in Maine, they will gather for an interfaith healing service for communities impacted by substance abuse at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday at St. John Catholic Church, 207 York St. in Bangor.

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Shelly Yankowsky at her son's gravestone in Glenburn. Shelly’s son Adam Yankowsky died in August 2017 of a drug overdose. Yankowsky, the Rev. Frank Murray, first responders and law enforcement officers have joined together to plan a healing service for those impacted by the Bangor area's opioid addiction crisis.

Marianne Lynch, an assistant district attorney in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, helped pull together Bangor-area faith leaders, local law enforcement, recovery experts, elected leaders, health care professionals and families to plan a program to acknowledge that this epidemic has left the community wounded and to pray for healing.

The group that planned the service developed a list of a dozen treatment and support programs in Greater Bangor to be distributed at the service. Catholic churches around the state will raise awareness about the opioid crisis at Masses the weekend of April 28 and 29. Houses of worship in the Bangor area have been asked to do the same.

[Opioid prescribing declines steeply in Maine, data show]

Local law enforcement officers have shared experiences of successfully resuscitating a user with Narcan, said Lynch, who is running for district attorney.

“But later, sometimes later the same day, they find the same person now dead from a second overdose,” she said.

“And, last year, I went to a number of funerals of young adults, some of whom I knew as my children’s friends, who succumbed to their addictions,” she continued. “Adam Yankowsky’s funeral was the final catalyst. I knew this young man and his family from elementary and middle school. This opioid crisis is an overwhelming problem, but to do nothing was no longer an option.”

When Adam’s family was planning his funeral, employees at the funeral home thanked them for openly stating in the obituary how their son died and for having a service to celebrate his life, according to Shelly Yankowsky.

Courtesy of Shelly Yankowsky
Courtesy of Shelly Yankowsky
An undated photo of Adam Yankowsky.

“I assumed that they would do that, because restaurants thank you for coming — because it’s a business,” she said. “But, they said what we mean is in the last year, they’d done funerals where it was just them and the dead person. The family doesn’t show up. In some situations, the family doesn’t even want a funeral because it has to do with drugs and they don’t want to talk about it.”

Lynch said that level of shame reminded her of how people reacted during the AIDS crisis, when they learned a family member, co-worker or friend was HIV positive.

“Like the current opioid epidemic, AIDS also struck down our young, so much so that average life expectancy dropped,” she said. “As a result of the opioid epidemic current life expectancy has dropped for the second year in a row.”

Lynch believes the service can help lift the stigma that families and victims grappling with addiction feel.

Yankowsky does not know exactly when or how Adam’s addiction to opioids began. He smoked marijuana in high school and, at some point, moved on to harder drugs, she said.

[Garrett: Inside the life and fall of a young Maine man addicted to heroin]

At the interfaith service, she plans to tell families who are struggling with addiction that they are not as alone as they feel.

“What I want to say is, love your child and love them a lot and make sure they know you love them,” she said. “It is going to be very easy to scream and yell because you are at your wit’s end. It’s going to be very easy to shut them out of your life. Instead, find them help.”

And, remember that the person is not the addiction, Yankowsky said.

“Adam was our son for 25 years,” she said. “Drugs was something he did. He was still our son, and you celebrate life — and we had a good life with him.”

For more information, visit the Penobscot Heals page on Facebook or call 942-6941. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, call 211 or visit www.211maine.org.

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