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Teenagers gather to look at the wall showing those who died of drug overdoses recently during the NOPE candlelight vigil Oct. 24.
LARGO – Hundreds of people who experienced the pain of losing a child, or were touched by such a loss, gathered at Largo Central Park Oct. 24 for a vigil designed to raise awareness of the dangers of drugs, specifically prescription drugs.
The annual event, organized by the Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education task force, or NOPE, provided a stage to share stories of loved ones lost to a drug overdose, in hopes that a imilar incident might be prevented in the future.
Susan and Greg Korabek of Palm Harbor lost their 17-year-old son, Landon, to a prescription overdose in 2010. Susan Korabek remembers trying to wake him on the day he died.
“It was a Friday and here was no school that day,” she said. “It was around 1 o’clock in the afternoon.”
Sleeping in was normal for her teenager. She knocked on the door. He didn’t answer, so she went.
“He was sitting up in bed. The TV was on, his cell phone was right there. He had his glasses on,” she said.
But he didn’t respond when she called his name.
“I shook him. When he still didn’t wake up, I called Greg. Then we called 911,” she said. “They told us he probably died around 3 a.m. The last thing he did was text a friend.”
It was determined that he died of an overdose of prescription drugs. Susan Korabek said Landon wasn’t an addict. It was his first experiment with drugs, and it was a fatal risk.
“He made a mistake, it was just that one time, but it made a difference, it cost him his life,” she said.
Coni Pappas of Clearwater also shared her story. As a single mother, she is coping with more than one incidence of addiction. She lost her oldest son, Nicholas, to cocaine overdose in 2005. Her youngest son Michael is in his fourth rehab program, and she is raising Michael’s son, 3-year-old Nicholas, who was born drug exposed.
“Coni has had every aspect of her life impacted by the drug epidemic,” said Laurie Serra, one of the event organizers. “She is doing everything she can to raise her grandson and educate him to be drug-free,”
Serra herself was directly impacted by a drug-induced death. Her stepson, Matthew, died in 2008 of a drug overdose. He was 28.
“He graduated from Seminole High School and Virginia Military Institute,” she said. “He talked about going to law school. He could have done anything with his life, but prescription drugs ruled him.”
Serra said she and her husband, Mark, realized how much they didn’t know about drug use. Looking back, they identified a pattern.
“He used marijuana when he was 13,” she said. “Unlike Landon, Korabek he was an addict. He suffered a back injury in high school, and it was then he became addicted.”
Among the speakers at the vigil was Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. He pulled no punches in describing the abuse of prescription drugs and those responsible for it.
“We have a prescription drug epidemic in Pinellas County,” he said. “We have been successful in shutting down most of the pill mills in our county and putting the drug dealers out of business. These drug dealers wear white coats, and they hang a shingle and are in business. But make no mistake: they are drug dealers.”
Gualtieri said the effort to curb the abuse of prescription drugs is having an effect that you can see by the price of the drugs on the street.
“If you go to a drug store with a prescription for oxycodone or OxyContin, it will cost you about a dollar a pill,” he said. “On the street however that same pill will cost you $15 and on some cases $40. That means that we’re cutting off the supply and the demand is making the price go up.”
Gaultieri said his office became aware of the abuse of prescription drugs about five years ago and since then has targeted what he called “unscrupulous prescribers”.
He also said that between 2010 and 2012, deaths from prescription drug overdose is down by 30 percent and that trend is continuing this year.
Largo Mayor Pat Gerard told the crowd that they had to make sure to intervene whenever they saw drug abuse taking place.
“We may only get one chance,” she said. “Say something, do something – you may never get another chance.”
Gerard said she was one of those impacted by addiction.
“I lost my father and two brothers to alcoholism,” she said.
The message seemed to be getting through to the people at the vigil. Allison McCauslin of Seminole was walking around with her 4-year-old son, Michael. They had just finished looking over a wall of pictures of drug abuse victims.
“More people need to know what an impact drugs have on their lives,” she said. “Doctors should be held more accountable.”
She said she hoped her son, even at 4 years of age, would begin to get the message.
“That’s why I brought him,” she said.
Chanel Wells, 19, also spent time looking at the wall. She said she was oi a pre-trial intervention program for using marijuana.
“It is so sad to see; it is an eye-opener,” she said. “It is good for people to be aware of this, and the lesson is clear: don’t abuse prescription drugs.”
Last year’s NOPE vigil attracted 1,000 people. Organizers say once all the numbers are in, this year’s event should at least match that.
Laurie Serra, coordinator for the Pinellas County NOPE chapter, said the fight again drug abuse cannot stop.
“We have spoken to 65,000 students this year with our message,” she said. “We know this is worth it, but it is never enough. We have to continue to push for better healthcare programs, and we have to plant the seed in our young people to make good choices, even when there is nobody around. We are making progress.”
That is the only way prescription drug abuse, or drug abuse of any kind, will ever be eliminated, she said.
“You can’t arrest your way out of this,” she explained. “We believe in education and rehabilitation. We’ve got to keep going.”