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How One Father Became A Leading Activist In The Fight Against Opioids


If we look at the opioid epidemic alone, it's killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and damaged the lives of millions more. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann introduces us to a father who became a leading activist in the fight against opioids after his son died of an overdose.

GREG MCNEIL: All right, this way. Come on.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: I meet Greg McNeil at a fire hall in Green, Ohio, a suburban city outside Akron. He's not a guy who ever expected to be on the frontlines of a deadly epidemic. He was a Web developer and IT specialist. Then, in 2007, his son Sam got sick.

MCNEIL: After an injury and surgery, he actually became addicted within 10 days because he was back in the ER within 10 days as a drug-seeking patient.

MANN: Like a lot of Americans, Sam became dependent on prescription opioids, on painkillers. In the years that followed, he turned to street drugs. The family tried to help intervening repeatedly. Greg says he thought his son was getting better.

MCNEIL: For whatever reason, he texted his old supplier. And they found him the next day. He had been given heroin that was laced with fentanyl.

MANN: Sam was 28. Greg still looks pretty much like a businessman and a father - white hair, trim suit - but he says his old life, the person he was, ended that day in October 2015. He started trying to understand the opioid epidemic, trying to get other people to do more to stop it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: As a family, we thought we were prepared to help Sam fight addiction. We were painfully mistaken. Our mission is to arm others...

MANN: Working with his daughter Amy, Greg started a podcast in 2016 that emerged as a forum for information about the opioid epidemic. It features in-depth interviews with policymakers, members of Congress, scientists and public health experts like Tom Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control.


TOM FRIEDEN: Hey. This is a huge problem, folks. Pay attention. Let's do everything we can to stop it.

MANN: The podcast reaches about 2,000 people a week nationwide. Greg McNeil also began organizing locally in Summit County, Ohio. He dragged government leaders like Green City Mayor Gerry Neugebauer into meeting rooms.


GERRY NEUGEBAUER: I would have people come to my office - one woman who had lost three sons at three different times to opiate overdoses.

MANN: In 2016, the year Neugebauer was elected, there were 12 opioid overdoses a day in Summit County - 340 people died that year. He says he didn't know what to do until Greg started bringing ideas, including a plan to equip local businesses with kits containing the overdose recovery drug Narcan.


NEUGEBAUER: Some of those overdoses are taking place at those hotels. Others are at fast-food places nearby the hotels. And so we thought this was a great place to do that.

MANN: The city is training service industry workers to use the Narcan kits. Greg also convinced local leaders to organize outreach teams to counsel people who've survived an overdose.


MCNEIL: They knock on doors of all the people that have overdosed. And they say, hey, we know you almost died this past week. We want to see you get help. Here's all the resources. We want to help you.

MANN: Jeremy Chambers, a fire department medic, joined one of the teams a couple years ago.


JEREMY CHAMBERS: I've had one door slammed in my face. For the most part, they are very welcoming. And I've had mothers crying. And they don't know what to do. And they're so thankful that we're there, that we least give them some way, some path.

MANN: About a third of the people contacted this way get some kind of counseling, some kind of help. Chambers says he's convinced the program is saving lives. And the number of overdose deaths here has declined. Greg McNeil says his volunteer work and activism also helped him survive Sam's death.

MCNEIL: Every day that I go to work, I have a very real sense that I'm working with my son. I'm working with Sam. When we get wins in particular, it feels so rewarding.

MANN: A win, Greg says, is when someone who's opioid dependent gets counseling or gets medical help in time. Brian Mann, NPR News, Green, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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