Families of overdose victims, law enforcement join forces as opioid crisis worsens
Katie Tettam shows the shirt her family wears in memory of her nephew, Travis Grustavson. The family is advocating for resources to be made widely available to help addicts.

It’s the club no one wants to join.

Families of opioid overdose victims joined forces Wednesday with law enforcement groups, recovery advocates, and first responders who see the grim reality of addiction every day.

“We’re in the same crappy club now,” said Judy Greske said she looked towards the other families mourning their loved ones.

Greske’s son Jason Dobosenski died of a heroin overdose in September 2020 at age 36.  Greske, a paramedic, said watching her son’s escalating addiction was difficult as she saw the opioid crisis worsen through her job.  Her son’s death is still an active murder investigation.

Dobosenski was one of five area overdoses resulting in death in 2020.  There were 86 total overdose reported the same year, according to Minnesota Valley Drug Task Force Commander Jeff Wersal. His agency covers four counties, including Blue Earth, Nicollet, Watonwan, and Martin counties.  By comparison, there have been 53 reports of overdose so far in 2021, with six fatalities, according to Wersal.

Kris Keltgen, the Manager of Operations from Mayo Clinic Ambulance Services, called the overdose trends “alarming,” with no signs of slowing down.

Recovery advocate Kara Richardson, who works for Blue Earth County Drug Court, urged addicts to ask for help and assured them there is a way out. Richardson said now, more than ever before, the drugs are not safe.  “We have people overdosing every single day,” she said.  “We are losing a generation; we have families grieving.”

All of the heroin seized by the task force in the last two years has contained fentanyl, Wersal said.  He revealed that some recent field tests of drugs have shown no presence of heroin at all, only fentanyl.  Wersal told a story of three men who split a single $20 fentanyl pill last year in Mankato, which resulted in the hospitalization of two of the participants, and the death of the third.

Statewide, the Minnesota Department of Health says overdoses increased by about 27%.  Opioid overdoses also increased during that same time by about 59%.

Nancy Sack made an impromptu and emotional speech about her grandson, 21-year-old Travis Gustavson, who died of fentanyl poisoning in February.  Sack described her grandson as someone who experimented just like all the other kids.  “To think it’s never going to happen in your family, that’s the first mistake,” said Sack.  “Because it will.  And it can.”

Sack and her daughter, Katie Tettam, made an impassioned plea to make people aware that Narcan (a medication designed to reverse the effects of a drug overdose) is accessible to families of addicts.  “We can’t save Travis’ life, that’s ended,” Sack said, her voice quivering.  “He’s laying up by his grandpa now in Glenwood. But we’d like to try to help somebody else’s life.”

The Mankato Department of Public Safety has responded to 10 calls that have involved administering Narcan so far in 2021. “That may not seem significant,” said Assistant Director Matt DuRose. “However, one is significant in this community.”

DuRose said he didn’t want anyone in the community to let the stigma of addiction or fear of legal ramifications prevent them from seeking help.  He stressed that even a simple call to 911 can connect someone with resources. “If the call is to 911, know that you’re going to get a police officer, a firefighter, a paramedic, a sheriff’s deputy…somebody is going to come there, and compassionately deal with the addiction that you’re dealing with.  That’s a guarantee,” he said.

Meanwhile, the families of overdose victims are still in that miserable club.  “It’s horrible,” Tettem said.  “You go to sleep thinking about them, you dream about them, and then you wake up again and know you have to start the whole day without them again,” she sobbed.

“Travis was a good guy, said Tettem, her voice breaking.   “He loved his family and we loved him,” she said after pausing to compose herself.  He has hundreds of friends that are mourning him every day.  He was worth saving.”




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