Faces in the fight: A community works together to battle opioids

State of Emergency logo body embed.JPG

Newsrooms across the commonwealth have spent years documenting the opioid crisis in their own communities. But now, in the special project State of Emergency: Searching for Solutions to Pennsylvania’s Opioids Crisis, we are marshalling resources to spotlight what Pennsylvanians are doing to try to reverse the soaring number of overdose deaths.

WITF is releasing more than 60 stories, videos and photos throughout July.

Award-winning photographer and writer John Beale teaches photojournalism at Penn State University. For this special project, he spent time in Mercer County finding and photographing people who are making a difference in the fight against opioid addiction there. Drug-related deaths in the county increased by 120 percent in two years.

Anthony Libonati.JPG

(John Beale/Penn State University)

The police officer

Anthony Libonati is a patrolman for the Shenango Township Police Department. He started working with his father, John Libonati, who is currently the Mercer County Coroner, as an emergency medical technician for McGonigle Ambulance Service in Mercer.

“I think seeing all that stuff (overdoses) had an effect on me and I think that’s why I got into law enforcement, Libonati said. ” As an EMT you can save their life but there’s no way to stop it.”

By contrast, Libonati said police officers can be pro-active. “We try to get the drugs before they cause an overdose.”

Dave Shellenbarger MD.JPG

(John Beale/Penn State University)

The ER doctor

Dr. Dave Shellenbarger, medical director of Sharon Regional Health System’s emergency room, knows that treating opioid addiction isn’t only a big city problem.

“When you work in the community where you grow up, as many of us do, we take care of people we all know.  One day it’s a high school classmate – the next day it’s a co-worker’s family member or their neighbor. And the numbers just keep growing.  What was the norm a few years ago of maybe two to three per month, has escalated to two or three on every shift or as many as six a day. It’s a serious issue and all of us, even community hospitals, are working to be part of a solution.”

Gloria Mackaly.JPG

(John Beale/Penn State University)

The grandmother

Gloria Mackaly’s 22-year-old granddaughter became addicted to drugs when she was just out of high school.

Mackaly quickly found out that there were few answers about drug addiction of family members, so in 2016 she started Mercer County Coalition For Drug Awareness.

Mackaly said her granddaughter has been in and out of four rehabs and still battles addiction.

“I’m the one who lays awake at night. I wonder where the hell she is.”

John Libonati.JPG

(John Beale/Penn State University)

The coroner

Mercer County Coroner John Libonati also serves as director of operations for McGonigle Ambulance Service. He says he’s seen too many people die from overdoses. Drug-related deaths in his county have increased 120 percent in two years.

“We want to preserve life through what we’ve learned through death,” Libonati said. “Mercer County has a very effective collaborative effort to mount a campaign to effectively combat the increase in drug use and drug deaths.”

Kim Anglin.JPG

(John Beale/Penn State University)

The drug and alcohol administrator

Kim Anglin, drug and alcohol administrator for Mercer County Behavioral Health Commission, says the organizations she works with have seen a greater demand for treatment, and often the treatment is for more complex cases.

“Sixty percent of the people we offer treatment to need the services as a result of opioid or opiate addiction. These individuals have greater needs for longer durations of stay within treatment. Each of our organizations touches the problem from a different perspective.”

Lin Cook.JPG

(John Beale/Penn State University)

The volunteer

Lin Cook is blind. But that doesn’t stop her from working with several programs fighting drug addiction in Mercer County. Cook works with “Twice Blessed.” a thrift store in Mercer that benefits Manna House, a step-down housing facility for women coming out of jail who had opioid addiction.

Cook also works with C.O.P.E, Caring Options Providing Encouragement, a group that meets at Mercer United Methodist Church and works to strengthen families and battle drug addiction.

Matt Chlpka.JPG

(John Beale/Penn State University)

The paramedic

Matt Chlpka has been a paramedic at McGonigle Ambulance Service in Mercer County for 21 years. He says that the overdose calls cause stress to the entire ambulance system since one overdose may require a response from several medic units.

Chlpka said addicts treated with Narcan often sign a refusal to be transported to the hospital, and paramedics may get another call within an hour that the same addict is overdosing again from the original “hit” because the effects of Narcan wore off.

He said addicts who overdose don’t always call for paramedics since they can purchase Narcan. In five months of 2018 he has responded to 47 overdose calls.

Pastor Rob Mohr.JPG

(John Beale/Penn State University)

The pastor

Rob Mohr is pastor of Lakeview Church of God in Stoneboro. He is active with a movement of church leaders in Mercer County called “Kingdom Unification” that’s uniting churches in a faith-based effort to curb drug addiction.

“We need to stop reacting to all the deaths and become pro-active,” Mohr said. He said churches are beginning to work with government agencies to seek solutions to prevent opioid and other kinds of addiction.


Staff reporting

Read more by Staff