Wayne Campbell speaks to students at Cardinal Newman High School about the dangers of opiods. (LINDA REEVES | FC )

Catholic high school joins in fight against opioid epidemic

WEST PALM BEACH | Wayne Campbell powerfully captured the audience of students at Cardinal Newman High School as he gave statistics on the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths, including that of his son.

“For 50 years, auto crashes were the leading cause of accidental deaths,” Campbell said. “No. 1 is now accidental death from overdose. Five years ago it snuck up.”

Campbell, who is from Pickerington, Ohio, visited Cardinal Newman just before the Christmas break on the invitation of the school because of teacher Tina Gerencser. She grew up in Pickering, a small town in the northwest section of the state.

Gerencser learned about Tyler’s Light, a nonprofit directed at young people that Campbell founded after his son, Tyler, died from an overdose of prescription painkillers. She shared the information with her school leaders, who thought it was a good idea to bring him and his educational program here to the Diocese of Palm Beach.

Campbell began Tyler’s Light five years ago. He wants to raise awareness of the serious problem of drug abuse, a crisis in Ohio and his little town described on the city’s website as “family friendly.” The problem is also spreading across America, even here in Florida, and is linked to opioid addiction.

The opioid epidemic has claimed lives across Ohio, the No. 1 state for fatal drug overdoses. One county there recently had so many deaths from overdoses that an extension to its morgue was built to accommodate the large number of people dying from the serious situation.

The problem continues to increase in Florida and touch the lives of families. Reports of drug raids and the reports of drug-related deaths fill the news headlines and social media.

“Opioid addiction is an epidemic in Palm Beach County,” said Dr. Christine Higgins, Cardinal Newman principal. “In 2016, there was an opioid overdose every 15 hours.”

Opioids are substances that act on opioid receptors or the nervous systems. They produce morphine-like effects and relieve pain. Continued use and abuse can lead to physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms and death. They come in tablets, capsules or liquid and include illegal drugs like heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as OxyContin, Vicodin, codeine, morphine, and many others.

“Tyler was a 2007 graduate of Pickerington High School North,” said Campbell about his late son, who died in 2011. “Tyler was Mr. Sociable, he never got into trouble. He accomplished his dream of playing Division I football at the University of Akron. He made good grades even though he worked out for football and traveled.”

Injuries brought on by football during Tyler’s sophomore year led to shoulder surgery. Pain followed that led to painkillers, which he took to help him get through practices and games. Eventually he became addicted. “He lost his way,” said Campbell.

Tyler’s addiction became more than he could handle. “He started getting bad grades. He began getting parking tickets. He began wearing dirty clothes to classes,” his father explained. “He was released from the football team and released from school.”

Tyler sought help and was in and out of treatment centers. He battled addiction for nearly two years. He continued outpatient care, but during a visit to see his family, he relapsed and was found dead in his bedroom.

Tyler was 23 when he died, leaving his mother, father, and brothers Ryan and Alex behind. Campbell and his wife, Christy, founded Tyler’s Light as a way to make a difference and bring the message to young people. “Every 20 minutes someone dies of an overdose,” Campbell said. “You are not you when you are on drugs.”

Cole Biehl, 27, also spoke during the Cardinal Newman High School assembly. He is a former opiate user. He is originally from Ohio, but is living and working here now and free of drug use, and on his way to a successful life. He wanted to share his story with Cardinal Newman students to encourage them to stay drug free.

“When I was in high school, I was in sports, graduated No. 8 and got a scholarship to Ohio University. In high school I started experimenting with drinking and partying,” he said, also confessing that he tried marijuana.

“I see how ridiculous it is now,” he continued. “I was drinking and partying. … I got into pills. I was hooked and started taking pills every day. One day, I totaled my car, rolled it over. I am lucky I didn’t die. I ruined my relationships with my family.

“I moved here in 2013 and have been sober for four years. No drinking or drugs. I graduated from Florida Atlantic University.” The young man, who battled his addiction and won, now hopes to get into medical school.

Cardinal Newman hosted an additional evening presentation and invited parents and community members. The evening event featured a large panel of professionals and experts who have been on the front lines of the battle against opioids, illegal drugs and spreading the message about the lethal consequences.

The panel included Sgt. Jim Hightower, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office; Corey Bessette, Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue division chief of emergency medical services; Jan Cairnes, chief executive officer of the Hanley Foundation; and Chris Jones of Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches. He was accompanied by treatment center personnel including Dr. Tammy Malloy, chief executive officer; Fredy-Ruth Levitt, executive director; and Jessica Neidlinger, a clinical coordinator.

“We need to get the important message out about the dangers of prescription drugs and the addiction to opioids,” Higgings said. “Our kids are too precious and it has to be a collective effort in educating them about this crisis.”

For more information on Tyler’s Light, visit www.tylerslight.com.