BROOMFIELD — Every year, International Overdose Awareness Day is a chance to pause and remember the lives lost to an overdose, and dedicate a day to the grief that touches countless lives. It's also an opportunity to raise awareness about substance use disorders.
Coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of Americans died of an overdose in 2020. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated more than 93,000 overdose deaths last year, which the report said is the largest annual increase in at least 50 years.
"2020, I would say, was devastating for us."
One of those people was 31-year-old Sara Wittner.
News5 met with Sara's father, Leon Wittner, who said his oldest daughter unexpectedly died on April 16, 2020. Her death completely crushed the family, and set the tone for the pandemic. "Sara graduated from college. She had an amazing job. She was driving a brand new car she bought six months before [her death]. She had an apartment, and life was great. She was going to get married in a couple of months. And substance use took her down," said Leon.
Sara's younger sister, Grace Sekera, described Sara as a charismatic person who loved animals, acting, and music. "Pretty oblivious to it [Sara's addiction] for quite a few years, until there was hard proof. Because I don't think anybody wants to admit that they know something is going on, because then they have to confront it," said Sekera.
Leon said Sara had struggled with substance use for years, stemming from a surgery she had when 21 years old. He said his daughter was on opiates for nine of the ten days she spent in the hospital. "She left the hospital addicted. We didn't know that," said Leon.
Eventually, Leon said Sara's addiction went from pills to heroin. "When they no longer were providing the pain medication from the doctors, then she was purchasing the pills out on the street, and then that ended up growing into heroin because the purchase of the pills was just so expensive," explained Leon.
Through recovery programs, Leon said Sara was able to find herself again, along with sobriety. He said his daughter would help fight addiction by helping others and speaking at public events about her own journey. "Sara was the person that if you're driving down the street and someone's passed out on the street, she would make me stop, so she could go check on them to make sure that they hadn't overdosed... She was a ferocious advocate for harm reduction because she knew just how ferocious a battle it was to get back from substance use," said Leon.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Leon said Sara asked if she could move back in with the family, since she was losing the important connections she craved from her recovery community. "She was telling me it was really hard because she didn't have her meetings... If 2020 hadn't happened with COVID, we'd still be sitting here with Sara today," said Leon.
Sara overdosed on April 16, 2020, and was found by her little sister. "From a young girl in high school, I kind of mentally prepared myself that she might pass away... It's always been a fear of mine that I would be the one to find her if something bad did happen. So, then I went and I texted her, didn't get a response. Called her, no answer. Knocked on the door, no answer. So, I knew as soon as I opened the door that I would find her," said Sekera.
Sekera said her grief came in waves. It sometimes felt as though her sister was still alive, and back in rehab. "Nothing matters as much as the drugs when someone is in active addiction. And, that is so hard as a family member to come to terms with," Sekera told News5.
Throughout Sara's journey with opioid addiction, she taught the family about substance use disorders. Now, they are dedicated to doing everything they can to shatter the stigma surrounding addiction. "People like Sara are the face of substance use, and it's not a choice that she ever made, it's an illness that they have... Someone who struggles with a substance use disorder, when they die, they don't get a chance to ever make a decision to get help," said Leon.
The family said they always carry Narcan now, which is a nasal spray used for a suspected opioid overdose. They also support the principles behind harm reduction. "Sara's message was always about harm reduction, and harm reduction is doing whatever you can to keep people from dying," said Leon.
CLICK HERE to learn more about Southern Colorado Harm Reduction Association (SCHRA) in Pueblo.
Leon said people may know about the record amount overdoses in 2020, but they might not really think about what that 93,000 means. "That is more than a fully loaded 737 crashing every day of the year. Now, when you look at it that way, we would be completely up in arms losing that many people every day to almost anything else," said Leon.
Sekera said Sara would be proud of the work her family is doing, and the impact her story is having. "There's no reason you should feel ashamed to have somebody who you love who is struggling with substance use, or who has overdosed and passed away. If anything, you should feel more empowered to help others through their struggle," said Sekera.
In 2021, the family suffered yet another loss. Leon's beloved wife Gina died from ovarian cancer in July. The two met as teenagers, and had been married since 1983. "Three different types of chemo, and she had over 75 chemo infusions. And, she wanted to make sure that she didn't make Grace and I have to mourn her death so soon after Sara's... Gina and Grace helped pull me through Sara's death, and I might not have been able to make it on my own. I don't know how I could manage Gina's loss without Gracie being here," said Leon.
According to the 2020 El Paso County Coroner's Report, the total number of all drug-related deaths increased "significantly from 130 in 2019 to 186 in 2020." 40% of deaths were due to a combination of substances.
To commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day, Community Health Partnership (CHP) is inviting individuals to Colorado Springs City Hall for presentations, a Narcan training, and a vigil. The event will begin at 6 p.m.
There will also be an event held in Canon City starting at 4 p.m.
If you or anyone you know needs help right now, call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255, or text "TALK" to 38255.
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