Wisconsin families fight drug addiction through obituaries

August 24, 2016


In this Aug. 11, 2016 photo, Sherri Smith holds an early photo of her twin sons, Jesse and Tony Sparks during an interview in Madison, Wis. Both eventually died as a result of accidental drug overdoses, Tony in 2005 at age 23, and Jesse in July of this year at age 34.

PORTAGE Some people who have lost loved ones to drug addiction are speaking out in obituaries as heroin and prescription opioid abuse continue to cause a rising toll of fatal overdoses in Wisconsin and across the nation.

They're replacing vague phrases such as "died suddenly at home" with revealing details in hopes of decreasing the stigma of addiction and urging others to get treatment, the Portage Daily Register (http://bit.ly/2beQ2Vg ) reported.

When Portage resident Sherri Smith's son, Jesse Sparks, 34, died from a drug overdose in Madison on July 25, his obituary said that he died "after fighting a courageous battle with heroin addiction."

The obituary also said that substance abuse isn't something to be ashamed of or to hide, but that it's a disease that should be discussed and fought by the community.

"People need to be educated about addiction," said Smith, who is in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. "It's not a choice. It's a disease."


In this Thursday, June 16, 2016 photo, following an interview in Madison, Wis. Michelle Hagenbaugh, left, and her mother, Amy Campbell-Andrew, share a moment after discussing the recent death of their daughter and sister, Alyssa Hagenbaugh, who died in May at age 25, apparently from a heroin overdose.

Phillip Wilcox, 27, also died from an apparent heroin overdose in Madison on Aug. 6. His obituary asked for memorial donations to go to the Parent Addiction Network of Dane County.

"I've been very open about it," said Patty O'Rourke, Wilcox's mother. "We need to talk about it."

More than 47,000 people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2014, a 14 percent increase in fatal opioid overdoses from 2013. About 10,500 of the deaths in 2014 were from heroin.


In this Aug. 11, 2016 photo, Sherri Smith reflects on the loss of her adult twin sons, Jesse and Tony Sparks, who both died of apparent drug overdoses in Madison, Wis.. Tony passed away in 2005 at age 25, and Jesse in July at age 34. A small memorial to the men, including the urns containing their ashes, is displayed on a table at her mother's home.

Drug overdose deaths more than doubled in Wisconsin from 2004 to 2014. The state had nearly 850 such deaths in 2014, more than 620 of which were from opioids, including nearly 270 from heroin.

"It's part of my nature, to educate," said Amy Campbell-Andrew, whose daughter, Alyssa Hagenbaugh, died in in Madison in May at age 25 from an apparent heroin overdose. "If it sparks a family conversation about drugs at an early age, that is our goal."



Associated Press