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The Opioid Crisis: Recovering as a Community

Mayo Clinic Health System - Mankato reports a 100% increase in overdose calls from 2019 to 2020.
Published: Aug. 31, 2021 at 1:59 PM CDT
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MANKATO, Minn. (KEYC) - Gathered together in Nancy Sack’s Vernon Center home with pictures of family members filling up the majority of her wall space, Travis Gustavson’s family reflects on the kindness of their loved one.

“He was happy. From the day he could smile, that kid had a smile on his face and it affected the world,” Kim Gustavson said. “Who’d ever seen it, it made them happy.”

Travis Gustavson, of Mankato, died of what the Ramsey County Medical Examiner determined as “mixed drug toxicity,” including fentanyl and morphine. He was 21-years-old.

While continuing to grieve, Travis’s family sets it sights forward to where someone else’s loved one could potentially avoid a deadly overdose.

“If we don’t save them now, they can never be a recovering addict. Travis will never have that chance,” Katie Tettam, Travis’s aunt said.

“They didn’t just take Travis’s life away, they took him away from us,” Sack, Travis’s grandmother said. “I have six grandkids but now I have one in heaven.”

“And I have a son who sits by Travis’s grave and cries,” Tettam said. “It’s because they were best friends and he’s lost.”

The growing presence of fentanyl locally is contributing to the increase in overdoses according to Commander Jeff Wersal of the Minnesota River Valley Drug Task Force.

“We hadn’t heard of fentanyl five or six years ago here, maybe a little bit of heroin. But now fentanyl has become quite a bit of our workload, especially with those overdoses happening,” Wersal said. “Everything we’ve been seizing has fentanyl in it. Heroin’s not marketable anymore if there’s not fentanyl in it. Sometimes it’s pure fentanyl we do, sometimes it’s a mixture of fentanyl and heroin.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports a geographic shift in deaths involving synthetic opioids and methamphetamines.

Southern Minnesota is feeling the impact.

Mayo Clinic Health System - Mankato reports a 100% increase in overdose calls from 2019 to 2020.

“The overdoses that have progressed to cardiac arrest have been very concerning to us because the number of cardiac arrests where Mayo paramedics have had to administer NARCAN [a medicine used to offset effects of an overdose] has increased by 433% from 2019 to 2020.” Mayo Clinic Manager of Operations Kris Keltgen said.

Public Safety officials emphasize that their first priority when responding to an overdose is not to make arrests, but to assist the victim in seeking immediate and long-term treatment.

“We’re not interested in putting somebody in jail or locking somebody up who is an addict,” Deputy Director Matt DuRose of Mankato Public Safety said. “There’s a lot of different ways we can handle that outside the jail system. We don’t want people to shy away from calling 911 if they need help if there’s some type of medical emergency that’s involved in this.”

While an overdose death may have a sense of finality for a family, the pursuit for justice doesn’t stop. Two people face third-degree murder charges in Travis Gustavson’s death.

“We have six open homicide files in our office, which is unheard of in the grand scheme of things and I believe that four of those are stemming from heroin use and opioid use within the last year,” Blue Earth County Attorney Pat McDermott said. “And it’s the schedule two drugs, the opioids and the heroin, that seem to be the biggest issues that we’ve seen in our community.”

In an attempt to curb the flow of prescribed drugs such as fentanyl and oxycontin into the state, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office has joined multiple states in litigation against pharmaceutical companies accused of fueling the epidemic as a result of aggressive sales strategies.

In July, Minnesota was awarded as much as $337 million over the next eighteen years as part of a $26 billion multistate settlement with four major opioid manufacturers (Johnson & Johnson, Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen.

Spending for the settlement funds will be overseen by the state’s Opioid Epidemic Response Advisory Council.

“The money should go where the pain is. That’s to the local communities, local governments,” Attorney General Ellison (DFL) said. “We believe that they have the knowledge, the power, the understanding to get the money where it needs to go.”

Beyond state-level settlements with opioid manufacturers, local organizations are also helping drive the push for overdose awareness.

“Mental health is a number one issue, one of the major things that individuals do when they fall within that bucket is substance abuse,” Greater Mankato Area United Way CEO Barb Kaus said. “That’s a piece that we really need to wrap our arms around. We are the boots on the ground finding the boots on the ground finding those concerns and initiatives and the ones bringing people together to find those solutions.”

One nonprofit the Greater Mankato Area United Way helps support is Beyond Brink; a peer-recovery program helping people based on where they are at with their addictions.

“Having someone look at you with a nonjudgmental approach. It’s a safe space that is created,” Founder Brandy Brink said. “We’re essentially a holding space for an individual without looking at all of the stuff that they come in.”

The family of Travis Gustavson believes community resources like Beyond Brink could potentially save someone struggling with addiction as Travis did. The bottom line they say, is awareness.

“I would say, let’s get together and let’s talk about it,” Sack said. “And let’s see if we can find somebody who can get you some answers, because there’s people out there. That’s what I would tell them.”

“I know more now. Now I know places where I would send him, I would even contact that place myself to get that connection going,” Kim Gustavson said. “I would make that next step.”

“We felt very hopeless. Now, we can’t bring Travis back but there’s help out there, there’s A LOT of help out there,” Tettam said. “Even in our area, there’s a lot”

An event is being held at Ray Erlandson Park in Mankato Tuesday, Aug. 31 in recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day.

Organizers are asking the public to also purchase a purple light bulb to light up their porches in remembrance of those lost to overdose deaths.

Addiction/Recovery Resources
Mankato Chemical Health

Outpatient treatment/chemical assessments

House of Hope

Recovery/treatment programming

RAAN

Syringe exchange/NARCAN provider

Beyond Brink

Sober housing/peer recovery support services

Minnesota Department of Health

Facts on opioids/state initiatives to curb epidemic

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