One in a series of occasional articles about opiate abuse and its consequences.
Zachary Estey had been clean for almost a year when his mother found out he was using heroin again, and convinced him to move from Tyngsborough to Florida with her for a fresh start. On Feb. 27, days before they planned to leave, the 22-year-old died of an apparent heroin overdose.
"I never ever imagined anything like this," Amy Pratt, a registered nurse who grew up in Lowell, said of her son's addiction. "He was such a wonderful, wonderful person, a great heart and soul. . . I still keep thinking, why did my little boy do this? How did he even get into it?"
It is a question asked by the heartbroken all over the region. Pratt's story is all too common, and despite ongoing efforts to stem the scourge, opiates are continuing to kill people across Massachusetts at an alarming clip, officials say.
On average, more than two people a day died of apparent heroin overdoses in Massachusetts in the first three months of this year — and that does not include fatalities in the state's three biggest cities of Boston, Springfield, and Worcester, which keep records separately. In December , deaths from heroin overdoses spiked to nearly four a day, according to the statistics compiled by local district attorneys for the State Police.
The average age of the victims was 35, and about 80 percent were male.
Among Boston's suburbs, Quincy led the fatality list with 16 suspected heroin overdose deaths in the four months from December through March. Lowell and Brockton were next with 13 deaths each, followed closely by Lynn with 12.
Haverhill had seven deaths, and Peabody and Weymouth six. Beverly, Malden, North Andover, and Norton each had five fatalities.
There were four fatal suspected overdoses each in Easton, Medford, Middleborough, Revere, and Somerville.
Three fatal suspected overdoses each were reported in Kingston, Pembroke, Plymouth, Rockland, Wareham, Hudson, Waltham, Gloucester, Lawrence, Salem, Salisbury, and Tewksbury.
Altogether there were suspected heroin deaths in more than 70 communities — from Abington and Arlington to Belmont and Braintree, Hanson and Hudson to Sharon and Swampscott.
"These are people who belong to someone; they are someone's son or daughter or father or husband or wife," said Lieutenant Detective Patrick Glynn, with the Quincy Police Department's special investigations narcotics unit.
Glynn blamed the large number of deaths on the increased strength of heroin on the street, much of it tainted with deadly fentanyl.
Quincy police were among the first in the state to carry Narcan, the brand name of a medication that reverses opiate overdoses — and that Glynn credits with saving more than 375 lives in Quincy since October 2010.
He urged anyone witnessing a possible overdose to call 911, as timely response is essential.
"We want the word out that police are out there to assist them," he said. "We won't arrest anybody for a small amount of narcotic. The primary concern is the patient, not the criminal activity. We've worn out too many pairs of handcuffs. These people have a disease. It's time to get them into treatment and back to productive lives."
Scituate activist Annemarie Galvin also said it is vital to get survivors of overdoses into treatment, noting that Weymouth follows patients home with information, and Scituate will soon do the same.
"This clearly is not a problem of just the young or the old or the middle-aged," said State Police spokesman David Procopio. "Likewise, this is not happening just in the city or in the suburbs or in the rural towns, but in all regions of the state. Our analysis helps us grasp the scope of the overdose problem, which for all intents and purposes is an epidemic."
The State Police also uses its computer software — installed in December to keep daily track of reported overdoses — to spot trends and help target drug suppliers, Procopio said. Previously, the agency relied on overdose data compiled by the state Department of Public Health; its most recent statistics date back to 2013.
Procopio said his data do not include Boston, Springfield, and Worcester because police there conduct their own investigations.
"I think it's underreported, to be honest," Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey said of the overdose figures, noting that the statistics include only unattended deaths when emergency responders are called. "If somebody gets to a hospital on their own, it's not reported to police at all."
He points to the need for better treatment, with more beds, longer stays, and more supervision, more education for the public and medical professionals, and more meaningful monitoring of opiate drug prescriptions — often the entryway to heroin.
As an example, he tells of a young relative who was prescribed opiate pain medication after a ski accident.
"He's on heroin now, fighting to get off, and every day is a struggle," Morrissey said.
William Garr, chief executive of Lowell House, said his agency has 80 beds for recovering addicts, and "we could fill our beds twice every day. We are facing a terrible crisis."
It is a crisis consuming hundreds of families trying to recover and cope.
Amy Pratt has asked that donations in her son's name go to Lowell House to help people fighting addiction.
"I think the best thing we can do is spread some awareness out there, and let people know how dangerous and lethal this is," she said.
"Hopefully his story will save another child."
Easton, Middleborough: 4
Kingston, Pembroke, Plymouth, Rockland, Wareham: 3
Abington, Braintree, Dedham, Randolph, Stoughton: 2
Bridgewater, Carver, Hanson, Holbrook, Mansfield, Marshfield, Norwood, Sharon, Walpole, West Bridgewater: 1
SOURCE: Massachusetts State Police
Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.