Michael Israel was just 20 years old when died.
A healthcare worker had spent just about five minutes checking on bed availability for the young man addicted to pain pills. Nothing was available for him; they said to try back Monday.
So Michael went into a nearby bedroom, cocked a shotgun and delivered a self-inflicted death sentence.
His father Avi broke down the door and held his son as Michael took his last breath.
“He had that look in his eyes,” Avi said, “and knew what he was going to do when he went into the back bedroom where he killed himself.”
“That look haunts me every night, because it was Michael’s way of saying, ‘I’m done,’”
Not a day or night passes that Avi Israel doesn’t think about Michael. Nearly five years later, some days are better than others.
That’s because Avi and his wife, Julie, made a conscious decision that their family’s tragedy might help save others from a similar nightmare.
They founded a nonprofit organization, Save the Michaels of the World, which has successfully reached out to individuals, communities and even legislators about the dangers of opioid addiction. It’s an effort especially important with Buffalo’s recent uptick in heroin overdose deaths.
Public education is the primary message at Thursday night’s town hall meeting at the North Park Theatre.
Hundreds of people are expected to hear from speakers who represent the public sector as well as medical experts. The event – doors open at 6:30 p.m. and it will officially get underway at 7 p.m. – is free and open to the public.
“We are hoping that it will literally be standing room only, especially since I think that space holds about 600 people. The good news is that we see this as a way to bring people the kind of information that we searched for, but couldn’t get when Michael needed help,” he said.
Michael had been addicted to painkillers that were legally prescribed to help deal with the pain caused by Crohn’s Disease and related surgeries.
His son’s doctors never consulted with one another as they continued to treat him, and didn’t seem to take the idea of hydrocodone addiction very seriously – even though Michael knew he had a problem, Ari said.
Michael was prescribed into addiction, Ari said.
Hydrocodone is a semi-synthetic opioid that’s synthesized from codeine, and was previously prescribed for all type of pain – including surgeries and dental work. It has been moved from a schedule 3 drug to the more restrictive schedule 2.
Hospitals either didn’t have treatment programs, or beds were not available – despite the family’s paying for high-end medical insurance as a way to get their son the best possible medical care.
Death was the best option in his frame of mind, because Michael didn’t want to continue with his addiction and also didn’t want to be a burden to his family, Avi said.
“I now realize that suicide isn’t selfish like some people say, because Michael worried about not being a good enough son – especially as he sunk deeper and deeper into the despair that is addiction. Add that to the severe depression he was also experiencing because of the Crohn’s, and you have an individual who wants to do better but no longer knows how to move forward in life,” he said.
Continuing to give a voice to Michael and others caught in the downward cycle of addiction is more important than ever to Avi, who worries that the entire country is threatened by the massive wave of drugs – especially opioids like heroin – that’s sweeping through countless communities.
“I really think our nation is in a major crisis when it comes to this, and I also think the stigma about addiction also gets in the way of providing more treatment services,” he said.
He just can’t understand why federal officials were more concerned about containing the Ebola virus in Africa than saving Americans from drug overdose deaths.
And at the same time, drug treatment facilities and services continue to be inadequate – and sometimes totally unavailable – in many, if not most, areas, he said.
“When it comes right down to it, we’ve not really done anything to eradicate this problem or even address the stigma that goes along with addiction. It’s pathetic that we know how to help everyone else – everyone except our own,” he said.