‘Facing Fentanyl’ documentary examines the personal impact of overdose deaths

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Last year Ohio Governor Mike DeWine designated August 31 as the first Ohio Overdose Awareness Day, intended to spread awareness about the ongoing public health crisis. The second observation of the day is less than a week away.

According to statistics from the Ohio Department of Health, over 3,500 Ohioans died last year because of unintentional drug overdoses specifically involving synthetic opioid fentanyl. Each of those deaths indicates the complete loss of someone’s mother, their father, daughter, son, sister, or brother.

Leslie Ostronic and Joe Timmerman are two Ohio University photojournalism seniors who have crafted a short documentary, “Facing Fentanyl,” to explore what the epidemic has meant on a personal basis to the many who have been touched by it.

Timmerman, who grew up in Cincinnati, had been familiar with the impact overdoses have on communities specifically in Ohio due to volunteer work he and his family had been involved in for a number of years.

“Growing up my parents always took my brothers and I into downtown Cincinnati, where we volunteered at a shelter in this church that did breakfast every Sunday morning,” Timmerman said. “Even though I was pretty young, I became aware overdoses that were happening in the bathrooms of the church.”

Timmerman continued to follow the topic throughout his youth as the opioid crisis throughout Ohio worsened.

“I followed the news about it through the Cincinnati Enquirer, and saw it spread to national news,” he said. “By the time Leslie and I were both juniors last year, taking this class, I think we were both ready to cover a more serious topic. That’s when we started doing our own research and trying to find a central character to focus our project on.”

Ostronic was introduced to the personal story at the heart of the film over dinner with a friend.

“I was just talking to one of my friends at Ohio University over dinner about how we would be pursuing the topic of fentanyl, and she told me that her uncle Joe Hern had died from a fentanyl overdose,” Ostronic said.

Joe Hern was a Columbus police officer who died January 1, 2017 of an unintentional fentanyl overdose. Hern was not known to be a regular opioid user. He had insufflated cocaine cut with fentanyl. Hern’s story is sadly common.

Dennis Cauchon, President of Harm Reduction Ohio, said that while Ohio has average drug use levels, the buckeye state is in the top three states in the country with the most overdose deaths.

“And that is because of things in the drug supply like fentanyl,” Ostronic said. “It’s also why casual drug users are at more of a risk. If you are a regular user of opioids, you have a tolerance. Heroin users usually have a tolerance to fentanyl already. So if there’s some fentanyl in the heroin, they’re not always going to overdose, but if you’re someone who is doing cocaine, and for the first time there’s fentanyl in that cocaine, you have a good chance of overdosing on that fentanyl.”

Harm Reduction Ohio (HRO) is a non-profit that is spotlighted by “Facing Fentanyl.” Ostronic said HRO defines harm reduction as “ideas and strategies that will limit the negative consequences of drug use.”

“Like HRO’s founder shared with us, drug use isn’t going to stop,” Ostronic said. “Harm reduction is about making drug use safer and preventing drug users from dying.”

HRO is the largest distributor of naloxone, an opioid antagonist that rapidly reverses opioid overdose, in Ohio. The organization also provides information on syringe service programs throughout the state, which work to prevent intravenous drug users from getting blood-borne viruses like hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV/AIDS.

HRO is currently providing Narcan nasal spray or intramuscular naloxone for free to all Ohio residents.

Both Timmerman and Ostronic said what they learned through the process of making the film was invaluable.

“This story involved a lot of different perspectives and opinions between the different people we interviewed and being able to tell the story through video helped us to depict their emotions,” Timmerman said. “We could show the audience how the words are coming out of our sources’ mouths, and let the audience see their body language in a much more dynamic way than we could have with just reporting or photography.”

Find more information on resources from Harm Reduction Ohio, including free naloxone, at this link.