(This story originally appeared in the Bradenton Herald)
MANATEE — Valerie Hathaway stood near the Green Bridge, her eyes shaded behind sunglasses. Her lips quivered as she held a large neon pink sign with a photo of a young man. In bold letters it read: “HEROIN KILLS.”
“I lost my oldest son,” the 58-year-old managed to say before she broke into sobs.
Hathaway’s 24-year-old son, Shane Fortunato, died Oct. 18 of a heroin overdose. At the time, he was studying and had just gotten a job and a new car.
“He was excited about life… and just thought it wasn’t going to happen to him,” the Ellenton resident said.
Hathaway’s story was one of many at a march held in Manatee County Monday evening. No Longer Silent, a group dedicated to giving a voice to drug overdose victims and their family members, organized the march for International Overdose Awareness Day. Hundreds of people in mostly purple attire walked the Green Bridge towards Old Main Street in Bradenton and back to a candlelight vigil on the Palmetto pier.
Hathaway, a nurse practitioner, was told Fortunato died of an overdose. Still, she hasn’t been able to open the official report from the medical examiner’s office.
“We were close, we were very close. I didn’t know he was doing heroin,” she said. “He had smoked pot and he had some issues… he had some issues but was doing well.”
Hathaway said she and her husband Duane Hathaway, 61, have gone to some of the meetings held by No Longer Silent.
“I’ve seen it before in the medical practice and it’s something we have to pay attention to,” she said. “We’re losing our youth.”
Nearby, Michelle Lyle stood by a table wiping away tears.
“I’m overwhelmed — absolutely overwhelmed,” said the 40-year-old, who currently serves as the treasurer of No Longer Silent.
“This is so much more than we expected, once again.”
Lyle said she has twin daughters who are both addicts.
“I’m definitely here for them,” she said. “Tomorrow is their 21st birthday and they’re both in jail, so they’re alive… but who knows from here.”
Near the bridge a long row of purple luminary bags were weighted down by sand, a tealight candle inside each. Written messages for those who have died of a drug overdose were written in black marker on the bags.
“I lost my son Travis last Tuesday,” read one.
Another, written by someone named Jasmine, read “I love you Mark. I miss you. I love you very much.”
Scott Heims, 59, of Saint Petersburg, placed a bag on the ledge for Danielle Marie Jerrels, who died April 15 from a heroin overdose. His wife, Kay Heims, said her daughter was 23.
According to Heims, she and her husband found out last summer that Jerrels was using heroin. Jerrels then underwent several stints in detox and rehabilitation facilities. It was in West Palm Beach, while staying at a sober living facility, that Jerrels died from an overdose.
After Jerrels’ death, Heims said she and her husband immediately went into grief counseling.
They have family and friends who have shown tremendous support through this difficult time, they said.
“It’s really overwhelming that it’s such an epidemic,” Heims said. “From what I’ve learned just since April, it’s mind boggling that the problem is just this huge, across the nation.”