Robert Owen loved to draw and play the guitar. He loved the outdoors and spending time with his family. Robert Owen also put a human face on the area’s opioid crisis.
This quiet, humble man served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army yet he could not win a battle he faced each day. Robert was an addict. Unfortunately, he is not the first overdose fatality and he will not be the last. The others who went before are just as much the faces of this horrible crisis as Robert Owen. He epitomizes the sense of loss their families must bear.
Owen struggled for most of his life with alcohol, said Emmy LaRosa, his high school sweetheart, wife and best friend. But most recently it was heroin. And it would be an overdose of heroin that snuffed out his life at 51.
The statistics from the New York State Opioid Annual Data Report issued in 2018, the most recent report on opioid deaths issued by the state Department of Health, are not encouraging.
Among New York state residents, the number of overdose deaths involving all opioids nearly tripled from 1,074 in 2010 to 3,009 in 2016. The age-adjusted rate of deaths involving all opioids in the state also approximately tripled between 2010 and 2016, from 5.4 to 15.1 deaths per 100,000 population. This included a large increase in the age-adjusted rate of deaths involving synthetic opioids.
Despite all that has been done in Greene and Columbia counties to stop, or at least check, this deadly epidemic, it could not save Robert Owen. His death, a tragedy in its own right, is reason for concern. It suggests a new demographic is getting hooked on opiates.
Disturbing, too, is the speed with which the opioid outbreak can take lives. Emmy was having surgery around Christmas 2018 when Robert’s life spiralled out of control. Emmy got a phone call at the hospital while she was recovering. The caller said something happened to Robert and to come immediately. Emmy’s mother accompanied her to the Catskill motel where Robert was staying. Sadly, it would be his last address on Earth.
Emmy decided to channel her grief and pain and what she learned from living with an addict and turn it into something good. She founded the group “It Takes a Community.” The group provides overdose awareness, information on recovery and rehabilitation, and support for anyone struggling or in crisis in Greene County. One of the group’s first acts was to start a drug tip line with the Greene County Sheriff’s Office at 518-719-3571.
Emmy is also using the group as a vehicle to challenge people’s perceptions of addiction.
“There is so much more to addicts than their addiction,” Emmy said this week. “Bobby had so many talents, and I don’t think people realize that addicts are sick. People think they want to be this way.”
Here’s the message Emmy is sending: Heroin addiction is a dangerous, debilitating and sometimes deadly public health emergency in the Twin Counties and across the state, and that addiction is an illness, not a criminal act. As Emmy noted, her husband did not like what heroin made him and he only wanted release from his terrible habit. If we listen, Robert Owen will not have died in vain.