Tanya Meeks wears a small silver urn on a necklace. On this day, it rested on a bright orange T-shirt with "Stop Heroin" printed across the front, and rubber bands hung from her wrist with hashtags that mirrored the shirt's slogan.
But like the urn, a black wristband stands out more than the other. The urn holds the remains of her son, Seth Wasilkowski, who died last year of a heroin overdose. The wristband has #SethWasilkowski written across it.
"I got a call (from University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital) to come, and I'm thinking immediately Seth was in an accident," she said. "I get there and they put me in a conference room, and at that moment I knew something wasn't right. ... When the doctor told me that he had died from a heroin overdose, I've never been so shocked in my life. I had no clue he was even doing heroin, and at that moment I was completely furious."
Wasilkowski died Dec. 3, 2014. He was 19.
In February, Meeks, who admits to being fueled by anger and a desire not to let her son's death be in vain, joined forces with an organization from St. Louis and began Walking for Wellness: Stop Heroin Lexington. Through the organization, Meeks holds marches and support groups, and offers an ear to mothers and other relatives who lost children to heroin. Her efforts are timely, as city and state officials continue to wrestle with rising heroin overdose deaths, and as fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate, has become mainstream in Lexington.
Heroin overdoses rising
According to records provided to the Herald-Leader from the Fayette County Coroner's Office through an open-records request, there have been 28 heroin overdoses in 2015 through July 17, seven more than in the same period last year. Lexington finished 2014 with 55 heroin-related overdose deaths and 19 fentanyl-related deaths. There were 44 heroin-related overdose deaths and three fentanyl-related deaths in 2013, and 22 heroin deaths in 2012 and five in 2011, according to data from the coroner.
As of July, 33 people have died from fentanyl-related overdoses.
The coroner did not report any heroin deaths from 2002 to 2006. From 2007 to 2012, there were one to five heroin overdoses each year.
Concerns over heroin and fentanyl deaths heightened after the drugs re-emerged across the United States, resulting in deaths, policy changes, national outcry and a great deal of media coverage in large and small cities.
Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, said that during the first quarter of 2015, Kentucky recorded 221 overdose deaths; 64 were heroin-related and 59 were due to fentanyl.
Overdose deaths began to surge late last year and have not slowed, Ingram said.
Users and dealers switched from prescription pain pills a few years ago after legislators passed House Bill 1, putting a chokehold on access to prescription opioid medicines. When the pills became harder — and more expensive — to obtain, addicts turned to heroin as their drug of choice. This year, the legislature passed Senate Bill 192, which hardened penalties for dealers and added $34 million to the state's addiction treatment system.
Lexington police Lt. Mike Wright said fentanyl is being mixed in with heroin or substituted for heroin.
For example, users "may think they're getting five milligrams, and they end up getting more potent dosage because it is mixed with fentanyl or all fentanyl."
Wright, whose unit is tasked to arrest drug offenders and offer support programs, said police were investigating the source of the drugs. A dosage of heroin can be purchased for as little as $10 but can skyrocket to a few hundred, depending on the amount.
Wright and Ingram agreed that it's going to take a collective effort to put a dent in the heroin epidemic.
"It takes all hands on deck," Ingram said. "Law enforcement has to continue to do their role, which they will, to interrupt supply changes and drug trafficking organizations. Prevention folks need to continue their part and continue to expand affordable drug treatment. And we have to fight this at the community level. Community by community has to address this. ... There's no one answer."
'Heroin took my child'
Seth Wasilkowski was a typical kid. He was an average student who enjoyed skateboarding and video games. He was respectful, seldom raised his voice and thanked his parents for dinner.
But when he was in middle school, Meeks said, she discovered synthetic marijuana in his room and in his laundry. Confronted, Seth made outrageous excuses about using drugs and eventually promised he would stop. He didn't.
As a student at Tates Creek High School, he began smoking and selling marijuana. The excuses continued, but he eventually stopped after he got into some legal trouble, Meeks said.
He stayed clean, passed drug tests, started going to Bluegrass Community and Technical College, and found a construction job.
At Thanksgiving, Meeks said, Wasilkowski complained that he was tired, but Meeks didn't think much about it.
That was the last time she saw her son.
Meeks later learned that Wasilkowski had started doing heroin after a coworker told him it wouldn't show up in his drug test. He had snorted heroin just a handful of times.
"Honestly, as horrible as it sounds, I'm fueled by revenge," she said, "because heroin took my child, and for 19 years he was my only child. ... Most of my drive is revenge, and all I can think about is heroin took my son, so I'm going to take away all of its resources. ... That's all I can do, and all I can do is educate, educate, educate, get the word out, and hopefully I will be heard."
Meeks spends most of her weekends marching and speaking with people, sometimes children, about her son and the effect heroin has on a person and relatives.
"It's opened my eyes to this whole new epidemic that's been going on," she said. "Sometimes I have little kids that walk up to me and ask, 'What is heroin?' I tell them it's a very bad drug and they should stay away from it."
Meeks doesn't think she'll ever get over her son's death, but she has put her energy into others, including her 1-year-old son. She believes God knew what he was doing, and she won't question it.
But she cries every day in traffic on her way home from work.
"I miss him," she said. "I miss him all the time."