It was late last year when a 3-year-old boy walked into Brown and Sons Funeral Homes in Bradenton. He was looking for his father. His eyes were wide with fear and confusion.
It didn’t take long for those once-innocent eyes to well up with tears. The young boy entered the viewing area and there was his father, lifeless in an open casket, the result of a fentanyl-laced heroin overdose.
It has become an all too familiar tale in Manatee County.
“I’ve seen some shocking things before and have picked up bodies with the needle still in their arms,” said Gene Brown, a Bradenton city councilman and owner of the funeral home. “But the most shocking was that 3-year-old who walked in looking for his dad. That’s the most emotional, and that kind of thing is where you need to get these people to think, ‘Is this worth it?’”
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Twelfth Judicial District Medical Examiner Dr. Russel Vega says his office is working with local funeral homes to process the overdose fatalities as quickly as possible. In 2014, his office performed 314 autopsies in Manatee County, which jumped to 397 in 2015. So far this year, with more than 3 1/2 months to go in 2016, his office has already performed 310 autopsies.
The increase, Vega says, is being driven by overdose-related deaths. In August alone, his office performed 64 autopsies, compared to August 2015 when there were 37.
Once you are here, there is no second chance.
Gene Brown, Bradenton city councilman and owner of Brown and Sons Funeral Homes
In more than 20 years of helping families get through the toughest moment of their lives, Brown says seeing that moment, “even as a funeral director, you have to walk around the corner and regain your composure. As a person, if that doesn’t affect you, you shouldn’t be in this business.”
That young father’s funeral was one of seven overdose deaths in that week alone for Brown.
Jeff Toale, funeral director for Toale Brothers Funeral Homes, says his worst moments came when holding services for “multiple family members passed away from overdose. It’s certainly sad, and there is a lot of defeat from the surviving family. Usually you see family members who have tried to help get their loved one on the right track, and then it’s the ultimate kick when they are down. Family members ask, ‘What could I have done more?’ But in reality, they did all they can. It’s just a crushing blow.”
Both Brown and Toale say the average age range for deaths in Manatee County are people in their 20s to 40s. Brown believes young adults, for some reason, are not seeing as much positive in life as they should.
“As a community, what do we do about that? I think it’s gotten to the point where there isn’t anyone in this community who has not been affected by this heroin problem,” Brown said.
The recent spike in overdose deaths is an extension from the time when pill mills dispensed prescriptions medicines with little to no regulations, Toale says. Once that changed a few years ago, “I did see the increase in overdoses pick up again, but now the shift is from synthetic pills to illicit street drugs.”
But they don’t understand just how many people are dying each day.
Jeff Toale, funeral director for Toale Brothers Funeral Homes
People are aware of the heroin epidemic in Manatee County.
“But they don’t understand just how many people are dying each day. A lot of those deaths don’t get reported in the newspapers,” Toale said. “I don’t think people understand the significance of how many people are affected by this. It is an epidemic.”
Vega’s office is struggling with capacity.
“The funeral homes are being very cooperative and doing the best they can to get the bodies picked up as quickly as they can,” Vega said.
As a city councilman, Brown said, “There’s only so much government can do. This isn’t about any individual family, it’s about what we can do as a community. It’s not an income problem, it’s a community problem. What it comes down to is what you can do to help your neighbor.”
Brown is no stranger to seeing families suffer through tragedy.
“But what I’ve seen, whether it’s a vehicle accident or natural causes, this issue has been the hardest from the family standpoint. They feel guilty because they want to know what they could have done differently,” Brown said. “They don’t deserve to be judged. If we can help save one life, the reality is you are helping 20 other lives, so we need to ask the question, ‘How can I help?’”
Toale believes the education is out there and that police and other agencies are doing all they can.
“It’s troubling in a lot of aspects,” he said. “It’s just not a lot of understanding about what brings people to drug use and ultimately overdosing. We have to keep talking about it. We have to keep the dialogue open. But sometimes you can do all that you can do, and there will still be drug overdoses.”
Getting loved ones help and educating people on the dangers of their choices are obvious responses, but from Brown’s perspective, it is a little more challenging.
“You hope, as a parent, that you don’t ever to deal with something like this,” Brown said. “It’s very traumatizing, but you have to help the families. The hardest part is seeing someone in a bad place and you want to help. Once you are here, there is no second chance.”
Crime reporter Jessica DeLeon contributed to this report.