GUILFORD, CT — Sue Kruczek didn’t know that when she began talking a year ago about how her son died of a drug overdose at the age of 20 that she would become one of the go to spokespeople on the opioid epidemic plaguing the state of Connecticut.
She was at the side of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last May when he signed landmark legislation placing a 7-day cap on opioid prescription, a law sponsored by Guilford State Rep. Sean Scanlon, another politician that Kruczek has spent much of the past year with at events concerning the opioid crisis.
Over the past year, Kruczek estimated that she’s told the story over her son Nick’s death, at age 20, to a dozen different groups – from town meetings to large gatherings at the state capitol.
And she also pops up at events like prescription drug give back days, as she did recently at the Guilford Police Department, alongside Scanlon, who along with Kruczek has been one of biggest advocates in the fight against an epidemic that claimed about 900 lives in Connecticut in 2016.
“Sue is a force of nature for change and rather than shying away from discussing the devastating loss her family experienced she has become a leading advocate in our state for breaking down the stigma surrounding addiction and getting those struggling the help they deserve so that other families don’t have to go through what hers did,” Scanlon said.
“I am in awe of her strength and courage and I’m proud to call her a friend and partner in this important effort,” added Scanlon.
Kruczek has told her sad story over and over – but it is still powerful every time it is heard.
She recalled the first time she told the story was last February – in front of a packed crowd at the Guilford Community Center.
“He was my first born,” said Kruczek that night. “He was very athletic. He called or texted me every day. He was an extremely talented hockey player.”
That’s “when our nightmare began,” Kruczek said.
“Before his first high school game he was tossed a pill by a teammate. It started when he was 14. When he was 19, he came to me and told me he had to go to rehab,” continued Kruczek.
After leaving a rehab facility in Florida, her son returned to Connecticut and began attending classes at Southern Connecticut State University, got a job, and an apartment.
“A couple months later I didn’t get my text. I knew something was wrong. In June of 2013, I found Nick in his apartment — gone — 11 days before he would have turned 21,” she continued.
The availability of prescription drugs, which have fueled the opioid epidemic in the state, will be limited under the legislation Malloy signed and Scanlon sponsored.
The bill places a 7-day cap on opioid prescriptions in an effort to reign in what many called the “over-prescribing” of painkillers. There is an exception clause included in the bill for those receiving long-term prescriptions from their doctors allowing them to exceed the 7-day cap.
The legislation also requires first responders to be trained in the use of Narcan and to carry and dispense it. The drug is injected into patients to counter the effects of opioid and heroin overdoses.
In her trips to the state capitol, Kruczek would often say: “It is too late for Nick.” But she urged the legislature to do something “fast and furious” on the opioid crisis so “more mothers won’t have to wear memorial jerseys.”
The 2016 legislation was a combination of more than 50 bills introduced to combat some part of the opioid epidemic.
Backers say that the legislation will give Connecticut, along with Massachusetts, the toughest opioid legislation in the country.
Reflecting on her whirlwind year in the media spotlight, Kruczek said she finds the time to be a crusader “because it is important to me to help other families.”
She conceded to having tough days. “After losing a child, you wake up tired,’’ she said, but she is passionate about her role as a spokesperson for action against the opioid crisis.
“If someone just needs to be heard, or helped, of course I am going to be there to listen to there story,” said the soft-spoken wife and mother of two other children, 11 and 13.
“Maybe I can help save the Nick’s of the future.’’
While Kruczek is happy the state passed the 7-day cap bill last year, she said more can still be done.
One of her suggestions is that the state find a way to use some of the money it will be receiving from the recently passed Mental Health Reform Act, sponsored by Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, to pass a “mandatory hold’’ program.
She explained that her son and others who suffer from drug addiction, after they are weaned off their highs in treatment, are often immediately released and the cravings for drugs are sometimes too strong to resist.
“If you go into the hospital for detox treatment, you should not just be immediately released after being treated. You should be held – probably 5-to-7 days, be given therapy, so you won’t go back to being addicted,” said Kruczek.
The Mental Health Reform Act provides $1 billion over two years for grants targeting opioid abuse prevention and treatment activities, such as improving prescription drug monitoring programs, implementing prevention activities, training for health care providers, and expanding access to opioid treatment programs.
Lawmakers, so far, have introduced five pieces of legislation this year to deal with the opioid epidemic. The deadline for individual lawmakers to submit their bills for consideration is Friday.