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Coroner’s overdose education effort spreads across the nation

July 13, 2017
By CHRIS KNIGHT - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

SARANAC LAKE - Since the New York Times showcased his "unusual perspective" to educating people about the opioid crisis, Frank Whitelaw says he's been a wanted man.

"My phone's been blowing up and so is my email," Whitelaw said recently. "Just lots of people from all over the country writing kudos. And I've been getting a lot of requests from various places across the country to do the presentation."

Whitelaw, an Essex County coroner and retired state trooper who lives in Bloomingdale, gave a presentation last year to Saranac Lake High School students on the dangers of heroin and opioid addiction. It included graphic photos of a local woman after she died of a drug overdose, and remarks from the woman's family, who found her body. Whitelaw delivered a similar presentation to parents a few weeks later.

In the months that followed, he said he offered to deliver the same shock-filled message to other schools, but none took him up on the offer. Whitelaw subsequently chastised school leaders for shielding their students from the drug epidemic in an April 17 Adirondack Daily Enterprise guest commentary.

"Are you so afraid to expose students to the graphic and harsh reality in our community that you simply turn a cold shoulder to it and hope for the best?" he wrote. "What is your fear?"

That op-ed, or what Whitelaw called his "most recent rant," caught the attention of New York Times reporter Lisa Foderaro, who met with Whitelaw in Elizabethtown a few weeks ago and interviewed him for a couple hours. She wrote about Whitelaw's in-your-face effort to educate young people about the opioid crisis in a story published on June 20.

The story caught the eye of a group called Recovery Matters in Massachusetts.

"We are a Massachusetts group of professional nurses, doctors, social workers, pharmacists, journalists and concerned community members who are alarmed with the continued and unabated acceleration of the opioid crisis in our state and the nation," licensed clinical social worker John Hoving wrote in an email.

Hoving said prevention education seems to have been lost in the mix of ways to address the crisis. He said he reached out to Whitelaw after reading the Times article to see if he'd give a similar presentation to his group or maybe the community at large in Boston.

"After reading the New York Times piece I got the distinct impression that it was very powerful message and one that we might benefit by," Hoving wrote. "From the sound of it, his presentation is powerful and that is what is often needed to truly make a difference. This epidemic shows no sign of subsiding and we need to start thinking out of the box in terms of treatment and education."

Whitelaw said he has received numerous requests to do his presentation in person. He's also been approached by a company that makes educational videos.

"That's the direction I want to go right now, because we're not in a position to be able to do a road show with my other obligations," he said. "Making a one-off video production of the presentation, in front of a school or whatever, and having it videotaped and doing a whole production, that's the direction I want to take it."

Asked why he thinks his approach has hit home with people, Whitelaw said it's a sign that current substance abuse education efforts aren't enough. He compared his effort to graphic drunk-driving-prevention films of the 50s and 60s.

"They'd show bodies torn in half, strewn all over the highway, to shock the kids," he said. "I'm kind of doing the same thing with substance abuse because nothing else seems to be working. In the current culture we're in, it's hard to shock kids because of everything they see on the Internet and in movies. They need a little more shock value, and they need a good punch right between the eyes.

"This is as close as I can come without showing them actual autopsy photos or bringing them into the morgue when I have a body. I wish I could do that but I can't."

Going forward, Whitelaw said he hopes to work with the family of another local person who died of an overdose recently: Justin Ropke, a former U.S. Marine Corps lance corporal, who died in a Kiwassa Road apartment on April 5.

"I'm talking with his mom, Lisa Ropke, about collaborating on the video production," Whitelaw said. "By all accounts, he was a great guy who had an addiction that got him. It's really sad."

Local emergency medical and law enforcement personnel in the area have reported an alarming spike in drug overdoses in recent months. As a coroner, Whitelaw said he's been called to five fatal overdoses so far in 2017.

"I wouldn't say it's a huge spike but I am seeing an increases in overdoses so far this year," he said.



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