With deaths linked to prescription drugs mounting in Surry County, a local group battling that problem is raising the bar.
Project Lazarus-Surry is literally elevating awareness of the issue to larger-than-life proportions, which will include a Wednesday screening of the powerful documentary “Overtaken” at the Earle Theatre in downtown Mount Airy.
The documentary will be shown during a program scheduled from 5:30 to 7 p.m. which is free and open to the public and also will include a special speaker, a mother with first-hand knowledge of a prescription drug tragedy. Jennifer Kaffenberger of Burlington will tell the audience how her son, a high school quarterback, lost his life to an overdose.
While Project Lazarus is attacking problems surrounding abuse and misuse of prescription medication on all levels — with the victims reflecting every age group — one goal of Wednesday’s event is influencing the younger generation at a pivotal time in life.
Along with the public at large, Project Lazarus has been making a special effort to invite parents and youths to attend the documentary showing Wednesday, as well as local educators.
“I’ve probably seen it eight or nine times myself,” Karen Eberdt, coordinator of Project Lazarus-Surry, said of “Overtaken.”
She said the production takes a realistic look at the effects of prescription drug misuse/abuse.
“It is about overdose survival,” Eberdt described.
“A lot of people, when they think about overdosing, they think about dying,” the coordinator said.
“Sometimes people overdose and survive,” Eberdt continued, and “Overtaken” highlights “what that’s like.”
The Project Lazarus coordinator said the documentary further emphasizes the fact that prescription drug overdoses don’t only affect victims, their friends and families, but the community at large.
A major part of the epidemic is non-medical use of prescription painkillers — people using drugs without a prescription, or taking drugs just for the “high” they cause, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As of this past week, Surry County had lost 30 residents to confirmed overdoses so far in 2015, according to Eberdt, relaying figures from Surry County Emergency Services Director John Shelton. As of Tuesday, two other overdose victims were undergoing critical-care treatment who were unlikely to recover.
To put the matter into perspective, Surry has lost nearly twice as many people to prescription drug overdoses as the city of Winston-Salem has to homicides, according to Eberdt. “And that’s amazing.”
Project Lazarus-Surry, modeled after a program that has been successful in alleviating a prescription drug epidemic in Wilkes County, was formed in 2011. Eberdt became its coordinator in 2014.
The group is attacking the issue on a variety of fronts, not only trying to educate young people and others about the dangers, but organizing take-back programs for unused medication to keep it from reaching the wrong hands.
A larger issue involves encouraging doctors to prescribe fewer painkillers, thereby reducing a culture of people relying too much on those substances and creating a sometimes-deadly cycle.
Jennifer Kaffenberger, who will be the guest speaker for Wednesday’s gathering at the Earle Theatre, will tell the story of her teenage son Harry.
He was an all-star athlete who played quarterback for Williams High School in Burlington. But Harry lost his life after one of his best games as quarterback, due to misusing prescription drugs believed to have been taken from his grandmother’s pain medicine supply.
During a victory over Southern Alamance in which Harry ran for 241 yards and passed for 107 more, he took some hits that cause him to be in pain the next morning.
Later that day at his grandmother’s house, Harry apparently saw a bottle of methadone prescribed to her for fibromyalgia and ingested at least one pill for his pain before going to bed.
Although his grandmother was taking multiple pills daily, a doctor later said that even half of a pill could have been fatal to the youth, who died as a result.
“These deaths have GOT to stop,” Eberdt added in reference to efforts by Project Lazarus, including the Wednesday event at the Earle.
In addition to the showing of “Overtaken” and the remarks by Kaffenberger, the gathering will include media students from East Surry High School who are trying to do their part to prevent prescription drug overdoses.
The students are developing their own production focusing on the problem, partly based on interviews with community leaders such as Shelton, the county emergency services director.
“They are going to be on site,” Eberdt said of Wednesday’s event, and plan to interview people in attendance about the problem, including Dr. Travis Reeves, superintendent of the Surry County school system.
Although the students’ production is an ongoing project, they will offer a glimpse Wednesday.
“They’re going to have a finished piece for presentation, but they’re going to be adding to it that night,” Eberdt said.
She expressed appreciation to the Surry Arts Council for the use of the Earle Theatre, and is hoping for strong attendance Wednesday to help perpetuate awareness of the problem and prevent further overdoses.
“We all have to work together.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.