Why We Serve
The incident was so disturbing that a rumor spread about clocks stopping at the time of death. Of all the senseless and cruel tragedies to cut down another human being, this had to take the cake. The natural impulse was to wish it away, because literally nothing could be done about it now. Some pretended that it never happened. Others went the opposite direction – they flew into a cold rage. They wanted to punch a wall and scream. Still others just cried, or sobbed, or held their head in their hands. There also were a few who, like in the movies, looked up toward heaven and asked why. The reactions were all there on social media for everyone to see.
In December 2016, something bad happened in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
To an outsider the city might well be just another Anytown, USA. It’s a bit bigger than Branson and situated on the west side of the Alleghenies along the banks of Stonycreek River – about fifty miles from Pittsburgh. They hold an annual 4th of July fireworks display there, and the residents vote mostly conservative. During autumn the neighborhood trees turn pretty yellows, oranges, and reds.1 It used to be a steel town until the mines and mills closed; that happened about thirty years ago. The city’s history includes several notable floods, the largest of which has a museum dedicated to its remembrance. The city had seen its share of hardships and calamities. Nothing in its experience ever prepared them for this.
It all revolved around a young couple who moved to Johnstown only seven months earlier. Their names were Jason Chambers and Chelsea Cardaro. They were in love but unmarried, and Chelsea was very pregnant. In a touching Facebook post she described her man as the “one and only love of my life.” They arrived to town without fanfare, found a two-story duplex in an area of town called Kernville, and began to set up house. Being personable people they made friends quickly. Everyone spoke of Jason and Chelsea as good people who were happy to help.2 Two months later Chelsea gave birth to a little girl, Summer. It appeared to be a defining moment for the young couple, who determined to do everything in their power to give the baby the best life possible and to be the best mom and dad too. Chelsea posted online pictures of Summer wearing pastel pink and blue outfits embroidered with cartoon animals and messages of endearment. Now that Summer was here, the proverbial couple-next-door had a new baby in addition to a new home.
Despite their youth Chelsea and Jason were not partiers – they never were – but they did have a dark side that they tried to hide from others. They used heroin. Almost nothing is published about their drug histories, but as heroin users they weren’t looking for thrills. Compared to other drugs taken for recreational and social reasons, heroin is more commonly employed in the unfortunate undertaking of avoiding or numbing pain, usually emotional pain. Heroin produces a rush of chemical changes in the brain that creates euphoria, sensations of warmth and safety. The rush becomes very important to those who don’t feel good in the first place. It appeals to people with depression or anxiety, who’ve suffered unhappy circumstances, or who lived through an abusive childhood. Heroin users exemplify people who self-medicate.
The record is vague about Jason and Chelsea’s own personal circumstances, but nobody wants to become a heroin addict. If they would have known what horrors awaited, they would have run like hell and never started in the first place. Unfortunately, the point at which one crosses the line into addiction is so hard to identify that nobody even notices until it’s too late. Voluntary use eventually becomes compulsive. The user becomes fixated on the drug and worries more about getting their next dose than anything else. They become so desperate that they will do anything to get it, no matter how questionable the conduct. After the couple’s death some allegations in fact did surface about them engaging in such conduct while living in Johnstown. While the police never confirmed anything, and no arrests were ever made, the allegations are sufficiently suggestive that Jason and Chelsea probably had become full-blown addicts.
They departed life at mid-December while the city’s holiday festivities were in full swing. The couple had made definite plans to leave for a long visit back home to show off their baby to relatives and friends. In the immediate moment, however, Jason and Chelsea had a different idea. They just wanted to get high. Jason took his shot of dope downstairs in the living room while Chelsea carried Summer upstairs and laid her down in the bassinet in her room. Although Chelsea didn’t realize it, this would be the last time she ever saw her beloved daughter again. She wouldn’t be seeing Summer get her first tooth, or learn how to walk, or go to kindergarten, or any other childhood milestone. From Summer’s room she went next door to the bathroom, took a shot, and hit the floor like a brick.
This wasn’t a typical heroin overdose. The victim usually takes a large amount of the drug and experiences drowsiness, mental confusion, and eventually loss of consciousness. The pupils narrow to a pinpoint and blood pressure drops as the heart beats more and more slowly. The victim’s breathing becomes slower, more shallow, and more erratic until it simply stops. A heroin overdose so affects the part of the brain that controls respiration that the victim simply quits breathing. Jason and Chelsea didn’t take a large amount of heroin, however. Unbeknown to them, they took heroin laced with fentanyl.
The fentanyl problem had been going on in the United States even before 2016, and it continues to happen today. Users are buying a variation of heroin that they’re not even aware of, a combination of heroin mixed with fentanyl, which can be up to fifty times stronger. Manufacturers cut heroin with fentanyl because the latter is cheaper to obtain. It maximizes profits in a black market that avoids regulation and never places content labels on anything. In fact, most deaths from “heroin” overdoses today happen because fentanyl is cut into the product. Since it’s hard to know when heroin has been mixed with fentanyl, the user is a sitting duck. Sometimes one can tell by color but, whether Jason and Chelsea were aware, we’ll never know.
The distinguishing feature of a fentanyl overdose is the rapidity of onset. It would have occurred within seconds. They probably noticed it as soon as they made the injection; they barely had enough time to pull the needle out before they hit the floor. Their lips turned blue, their bodies stiffened, and the classic symptoms of overdose were upon them. They never stood a chance. Jason was downstairs, Chelsea had gone upstairs with Summer; neither were with the other, and each had been incapacitated almost immediately. Their overdose symptoms culminated in choking and gurgling sounds – the death rattle – the harbinger of imminent death.
With the expiration of her parents, five month-old Summer was left all alone in the house. Afterwards friends said that Chelsea and Jason were imperfect people who nevertheless loved their daughter. Yet there they lay dead. Summer’s parents became victims of an opioid epidemic that had killed thousands before them.
Now it was her turn. Let the reader understand – nobody realized the family was even at home. Neighbors and friends assumed they had left on vacation. No one was going to stop by and check to see how everything was going. Not a neighbor, or a friend, or the police, or other civil authority was coming to rescue the baby. When Chelsea placed Summer in the bassinet, that would be the last human comfort or touch that the baby would ever know. She wouldn’t be changed or be fed. Summer was on her own, and it was only a matter of time. But, unlike her parents whose deaths could be clocked in minutes, Summer’s demise would take days. The chief of police gave a press interview following the grisly discovery. He lost his train of thought, wondering out loud how long the baby lie screaming for attention before finally succumbing to dehydration.
It isn’t easy finding candid information about death by dehydration. Some commentators exclaim that it’s unbearable while others assure us that it’s painless and the most natural way to die. The issue is complicated these days by the politics surrounding so-called terminal dehydration. The right-to-die debate has really heated up since Jack Kevorkian first drove his suicide machine to Oregon three decades ago. Proponents today claim that such a death is comfortable, even gentle, because it releases endorphins into the brain. Opponents describe a dramatically different experience. One of the more neutral voices in the debate, the Patients Rights Council, provides the following description of the process:
As a person dies from dehydration, his or her mouth dries out and becomes caked or coated with thick material; lips become parched and cracked; the tongue swells and could crack; eyes recede back into their orbits; cheeks become hollow; lining of the nose might crack and cause the nose to bleed; skin begins to hang loose on the body and becomes dry and scaly; urine would become highly concentrated, leading to burning of the bladder; lining of the stomach dries out, likely causing the person to experience dry heaves and vomiting; body temperature can become very high; brain cells dry out, causing convulsions; respiratory tract also dries out causing thick secretions that could plug the lungs and cause death. At some point the person’s major organs, including the lungs, heart, and brain give out and death occurs.3
We assume that at least some of this happened to Summer. Moreover, the coroner’s report later informed the police chief roughly how long the process took. The estimate was four to five days.
The Chambers’ story revolted even the most hardened sensibilities. It’s a lot to process. It’s easy to become angry and look for someone to blame, beginning with Jason and Chelsea.4 Nevertheless, even as we think about them we must remember that their’s is only one story and not an isolated case. More than a thousand children in the United States die every year under similar circumstances of neglect. Many, many thousands of addicts and alcoholics die too. Drugs and alcohol kill in a myriad of ways. For each death there is a similarly tragic and personal story.
Importantly, there are two features about addiction that we particularly wish to impress upon the reader:
First, addicts who put needles into their arms essentially have no more choice in this than someone who jumps out of a burning building. They’ll do it regardless of the potential consequences to themselves or others. Addiction impairs free will and decision-making abilities. Some may have difficulty wrapping their minds around that idea, but Jason and Chelsea’s conduct typifies what the 12 Steps refer to as being powerless. We’ve written about this before, and the concept is well-recognized by medical researchers and recovery centers worldwide. We at CORE who have suffered the misfortunes of being powerless can assure the reader that it is a real and grave condition.
Second, addicts who find and pursue the 12 Step solution to address their powerless condition in fact do recover. Even better than that, a marvelous and miraculous metamorphosis occurs. Not only do they become the substance-free person they always wanted yet never thought they could be, but they also move forward toward becoming the best version of themselves. Their focus turns from within to without, and they become motivated by a genuine concern for the well-being of others. They start making a positive impact on the world. We easily can imagine that, had Jason and Chelsea timely availed themselves of the solution, the Chambers family today would be among the finest that the city of Johnstown has the privilege of knowing. This isn’t wishful thinking. We are informed by personal experience and the experience of others. It happens for everyone who works the program.
God has blessed each of us at CORE with a gift that is more valuable than anything else on earth. Each of us found ourselves knocking on death’s door when we hit rock bottom. Recovery granted us a second chance with renewed minds and changed hearts. The Apostle John says, “We love because He first loved us.”5 It is our experience with God’s saving grace that explains our desire to be of service to those in similar need. God saved us from a terrible fate. We don’t want what happened to Jason, Chelsea, and Summer to happen to anyone else. The misery created by addiction is incalculable. We know the solution and are motivated to share it with everybody who wants it.
For this reason, our work here at CORE seems like the best job one could ever hope for. We have the ability to make a difference and help prevent future tragedies from happening. Each day coming to work we ask ourselves how we can be of service to our clients. This pushes us to provide them the best possible recovery environment, to keep them safe, and to provide thoughtful guidance while they work the program. The 12 Steps are the basic building blocks for forming a powerful relationship with God. That’s where the miracle happens; it can’t be found anywhere else. We are grateful to work with an organization that advocates a spiritual life and has a real impact on promoting a safer, better society.
We live in a big world with lots of problems, and there are people in dire need for many reasons. It’s so overwhelming to think about that many simply don’t. When it comes to the suffering alcoholic or addict, who is at risk of being overlooked amidst all these issues, we at CORE take note. They are not forgotten. When they are ready for recovery, we are right here, always prepared to help.