Opioid overdoses don’t stop at the Philadelphia city line.
Radnor Board of Heath Member Angelik “Kiki” Karayannis, a Radnor School District nurse, knows that all too well. Her 25-year-old son, Michael, died of fentanyl poisoning, and her family’s life has forever changed.
“Michael was an athlete, a band member, honor student, and lifeguard who was very popular and loved by many,” said Karayannis. “The loss of this magnitude shatters my family’s hearts and rocks our souls every day as we see Michael in our memories everywhere. From the brilliant smile that lit up a room to the enormous hug that engulfed your heart. The unbridled passion of riding a huge wave. The elation of the Eagles’ Super Bowl win. The joyful tunes of his piano, drums, and harmonica that now sit in deafening silence. The visceral pain of Michael’s absence at every life event celebration is excruciating.”
Sarah Laurel, executive director of Savage Sisters Recovery, and Melanie Beddis, the nonprofit’s program director, also spoke at a recent Board of Health meeting. About 30 residents attended, including state Rep. Lisa Borowski (D-Newtown Square).
Laurel and Beddis said in recent years, xylazine, an animal tranquilizer dubbed “tranq,” is being used more and more to cut illegal drugs.
A bill sponsored by Bucks County Rep. Kristin Marcell to tell people about the dangers of “tranq” was passed and signed into law last year by Gov. Josh Shapiro. Shapiro also added the drug to the list of illegal substances.
Laurel noted that as law enforcement pressure has increased on fentanyl, drug dealers have turned to xylazine.
Laurel described Savage Sisters as an organization that helps drug users through “harm reduction” rather than requiring them to be abstinent before they get help. Laurel and Beddis are in recovery themselves.
Members of Savage Sisters go out on the streets of Kensington, the well-known area for illegal drugs, to try to help people.
“Abstinence is archaic and outdated,” said Laurel. “Be nice, don’t judge, don’t force.” Drug users are “very aware that it is unsafe. They’re aware that it’s dangerous.”
And she added, “Coercion when it comes to treatment is never effective.”
With the rise of “tranq,” they are treating the horrific wounds that result from the abuse of that drug.
That is due to constriction of the blood vessels that prevent minor cuts or scapes from healing, said Beddis. The group’s office provides addicts with showers and access to a toilet.
Beddis taught a class on how to keep someone who has overdosed from dying. First, call 911, then give the victim Narcan (naloxone).
Savage Sisters uses both the nasal spray and injectable versions, she said.
Anyone who takes illegal drugs can be at risk for an overdose. Drug dealers don’t say what is in their product or how potent it is.
“It’s kids from the counties. They come to Kensington to get their drugs, come home to overdose alone,” said Beddis. The group advises people if they are going to use drugs, have someone with them. But often, kids hide what they’re doing from their families, which puts them more at risk.
Pennsylvania has a Good Samaritan Law that protects people who intervene to help others, said Radnor Police Superintendent Chris Flanagan. Radnor Police also now have social workers to help people with various problems, including those with family members abusing drugs, he said.
Flanagan recommended that people get Narcan and learn how to use it.
Pennsylvania had 5,143 drug overdose deaths in 2022 (the most recent totals). That same year, Bucks County had 160, Delaware County had 174, Chester County had 105, and Montgomery County had 185 overdose deaths.
There was also a 13 percent increase in drug overdose deaths for Black Americans, Beddis said.
Borowski told DVJournal, “I am thrilled to see the Radnor Board of Health is taking a leadership role in educating our communities about the opioid public health crisis. The recent presentation in partnership with Savage Sisters, Radnor Township Police Department, and (nonprofit) Waves to Wellness not only illustrated how substance use disorders are impacting individuals, families, and communities in growing numbers but also clearly defined how people struggling need to be met where they are and supported. There is no quick fix to this issue that does not discriminate when it comes to age, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. We need to combat it with education, awareness, and empathy while working to get victims of this crisis the treatment they need when they are ready.”
Karayannis said, “Our country is experiencing the worst drug crisis in history. Someone in the U.S. will die of an overdose in the next five minutes before I finish speaking. Moreover, Kensington is the main hub of overdose that has received widespread attention. While we like to believe we’re immune to this in our Main Line community, make no mistake, Kensington is just a text and an Uber ride away. And like any other disease, addiction does not discriminate between race, ZIP code, or gender.”