Death can happen in an instant. A decision that saves your life can happen just as fast. So take the time to make the right one.
That's my takeaway from the powerful public service announcement recently produced by the Livermore Police Department about the local realities of the international illicit fentanyl scourge.
The PSA video is targeted toward teens in high school, but it has the ability to impact anyone who watches. It centers on an emotional interview with Judy Burrescia, whose daughter Correen O'Rourke, a Granada High School alumna, died at 32 from a fentanyl-related overdose in 2019.
"I felt compelled to tell my story and my daughter's story in this way because there is such a great need for everyone to know the dangers of fentanyl in our lives now. It is vital that kids realize it is a matter of life or death. Not just about getting high or drunk," Burrescia told me in an email interview over the weekend.
"My daughter was very outspoken about her addiction and her recovery," Burrescia added. "What kind of mother would I be if I sat back and did nothing or said nothing about this. Her death has to have some good meaning in all its sadness. So if it can save one or more child or adult by speaking out, then that is what I have to do."
The CDC's "Stop Overdose" webpage provides an insightful overview of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid said to be "up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine."
There's pharmaceutical fentanyl (which many of us or our family members have been introduced to by prescription), and then there's illicitly manufactured fentanyl, which on its own or laced in other drugs is increasingly popular on the illegal market due to its heroin-like effect. It's also a major contributor to fatal and nonfatal overdoses, according to the CDC.
And the numbers seem to keep growing.
Even in Livermore, the police department reported responding to at least four calls related to fentanyl in 2021. In 2022, that total jumped to 11. So far in this young year, they've responded to three suspected fentanyl calls where Narcan has been administered.
"We've heard of increased numbers of fentanyl deaths across the country. While our numbers in Livermore might not be alarming, one death is too many. We hope by educating our community, they can make informed choices to prevent deaths. Even if we have one death, it's a tragedy just like the story that was highlighted in the PSA," Livermore Police Chief Jeramy Young told me.
Many in the Tri-Valley no doubt remember the particularly terrible incidents recently that have grabbed headlines, such as the toddler in Livermore who died last year after allegedly ingesting her father's fentanyl or the 18-year-old in Alamo charged by the feds just weeks ago for allegedly supplying M30 pills that led to a fatal OD.
But the personal tragedies landing below the public radar can hit home with just as much impact. That's the power of the Livermore police PSA and Burrescia's words.
The nearly six-minute video produced entirely by LPD communications staff opens with a dramatic montage of TV news reporters, photographs and internet screengrabs of the "nationwide disaster" of fentanyl-related overdoses before zeroing in on local news articles related to Tri-Valley cases.
The focus then shifts to a poignant sitdown interview with Burrescia interspersed with photos and videos from Correen's life.
Burrescia shares how her daughter became addicted to drugs and alcohol as a young adult, but was compelled to change her life after giving birth. Traces of heroin in the blood of the otherwise healthy newborn forced Correen into rehabilitation before being able to retain her child.
"She was back to her old self again," Burrescia says in the video with a little smile, remembering her daughter's initial recovery. "For 3-1/2 years, she was doing OK."
"To this day, I don't know why or how she started to use again. And unfortunately, and in one use, she died," Burrescia says. "We had to wait for the autopsy and it said there was fentanyl in there. That's what killed her. She doesn't even know she's gone; she used it, she stopped breathing and that's what fentanyl does. It's just a tiny, tiny grain of sand ... and you're dead."
She ends the PSA with a message for high schoolers enticed by dangerous drugs like illicit fentanyl. "It's that initial, very first time you're tempted: You have to say no."
The PSA was released on social media at the end of January. "The reaction has been positive, with many people commenting on the connection to Livermore and how powerful and emotional it is," Young said. "Our No. 1 goal is to save lives by educating our community. We hope families will have a conversation after watching the PSA. We hope it will be shown in more schools."
The message was shown to Livermore High School's entire student population on Feb. 22 at the urging of principal Helen Gladden.
"The video discusses a fentanyl overdose that took place right here in Livermore, with a clear message that it can and has happened in our own city," Gladden told me. "Any student questions that came up after watching the videos were provided to our administration by teachers, and a FAQ was produced and shared with families. Our hope is that this will spur conversations within our community so that we can all work to keep our youth safe. Knowledge is power."
Editor's note: Jeremy Walsh is the editorial director for the Embarcadero Media East Bay Division. His "What a Week" column publishes on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.