GREENSBORO, NC – Call it a club of broken hearts; a club no mom wants to join.
On a Friday afternoon, three North Carolina women solemnly walked into room with a couch, cameras and a black out curtain. Each held a picture of their child. Sitting side by side, the three eyed the box of tissues sitting underneath the chair of a reporter.
All three, from different backgrounds, spent the last year living in hell; a hell they didn’t know they shared with each other or with so many other moms across the country.
Taking haggard breaths, one by one, each said their name and the names of the child in the pictures they clutched tightly on their laps.
“My name is Louise Vincent,” said the first woman, “and I am here to talk about my daughter, Selena Vincent, who died of a heroin overdose on March 13th of this year.”
Next to her, in a deep purple shirt, the woman could barely say the following words without tears streaming down her cheeks.
“My name is Angela Whitaker. My son’s name was Corey Alexander Hunt. He was 22 years, 8 months and 13 days on the day of his death June 10th of this year.”
Angela all but whispered the next sentence. “He was found in the Sheetz bathroom off National Highway in Thomasville.”
And finally, a third woman sitting on the end slowly said. “My name is Hope Thompson. I found my daughter, Tristan Lee Thompson, on August 4th.”
In six months, the three women from Thomasville and Greensboro, lost their children to heroin overdoses.
Louise struggled with drug addiction most of her life. In and out of rehabs, the mom managed to get clean and stay clean for over a decade. At her worst, she called her drug use “chaotic” and she used the same word to describe her daughter’s descent into addiction.
“If we could have talked her out of it, we would have,” said Louise. “There was no conversation we didn’t have.”
For years, Louise worked as a harm reduction specialist; finding ways to "meet addicts where they were." Through her work, she educated the public on anti-overdose drugs, opened a space to give clean supplies to people struggling with addiction and acted as a gateway for people seeking information about rehab.
Knowing the pain a life of drug use can bring, Louise convinced her daughter to seek treatment.
“After about a month there, in rehab, we got a call that she was dead,” said Louise, taking a pause to let tears fall.
“At that point,” she said with a low, broken voice,” I was really sad.”
“It was an hour and seven minutes that he was in the bathroom before he was found by an employee,” Angela said, struggling to breath as she uttered the words.
Her son, Corey and another one of her children both fought the demon of heroin addiction. Corey was clean for seven months, after struggling to find a rehab that would take him without insurance.
On the day of his death, he was supposed to mow lawns to make extra money. But, he found himself without a ride and lost in Thomasville.
“We got a text and it just said ‘Corey is d-e.’ said Angela. “I called the hospital and of course they couldn’t tell me what room he was in, so, all they said was you need to get to the emergency room.”
A week before Angela sat down with reporter, Hope Ford and two other moms, she received his autopsy in the mail.
“It said his death was heroin, fentanyl and pharaohfentanyl” Angela cried. “Your world gets shattered.”
Hope described her daughter as fun and bright. The 18-year-old attended Davidson Early College and in the past, won a DARE program essay contest on the dangers of drugs.
But, it wasn’t enough to keep the teenager from a downward spiral.
“We hadn’t seen her in about three days,” Hope said as she remembered the days leading up to her daughter’s death.
Hope had her daughter committed to a hospital weeks earlier, but because Tristan was 18, she was allowed to walk out on her own and continue using drugs.
“The day I found my daughter, the EMS worker told me she had seen my daughter before. She said Tristan overdosed in a Wal-Mart parking lot. That was the first I had ever heard of her overdosing.”
Hope’s eyes glazed over as she spent a few minutes re-living the day she found her daughter dead.
WATCH: The Cost of Heroin Treatment
“EMS wanted to me to do CPR. When I found her, she was in the bathroom, kneeled down with her head in between her legs. EMS wanted me to get her on the ground so I could do CPR,” Hope began. “My 16-year-old had to come in and help me flatten her out so I could do CPR. When I first rolled he rover, I’ll never get that picture out of my head.”
Heroin-related deaths peaked in 2014, nationwide, killing over 10,000 people.
Unlike Louise, who knew what heroin was; Hope and Angela's first experiences with the topic of the drug, started with their child's addiction.
“Maybe I was naïve, “said Hope, “but I didn’t know what heroin was until I was an adult.”
All three want to see better education for teenagers. Louise thinks a no holds barred approach for school drug programs is the only thing to get kids attention now.
“All we’ve ever been taught is just say no. We've never been taught what the drugs are, how to identity a problem, how to get help if you do find yourself struggling with an addiction,” Louise explained.
Hope, who plans to turn the home she found her daughter into a safe-place and education center for teenagers said, “We had to start in the middle and high schools especially and continue to have education, not just one short course.”
Along with better education, the moms said they hope for a change in drug policy.
“Jails are detoxing people,” said Louise. “The police are trying to wrangle people up. We’ve turned police into medical staff and they don’t have the training for it.”
In later 2015 and early 2016, more people were behind bars for drug offenses than the number of people who were in prison for any crime in 1980, according to the Sentencing Project and Politifact. In the same time period, 83 percent of all drug arrests were for possession, not dealing or manufacturing. Marijuana was the number one reason for arrest, but heroin is second.
“We’ve thrown drug users away,” said Louise. “The drug policy has to change. We cannot treat a health issue like a criminal one.”
Unfortunately, as Angela learned, health care isn’t cheap for those struggling with an addiction.
“There needs to be stuff in place for somebody like him that had no insurance. I mean, you don’t have any money to go and places aren’t readily available if you don’t have the money.”
The Affordable Care Act allows insurance companies to cover the cost of some drug treatments, while other policies only cover treatment deemed medically necessary by a professional. Without insurance, it’s nearly impossible to get long-term help, as free drug rehab centers are rare.
Then, there’s the controversial conversation centered around treatment centers giving clients Naloxone, an anti-overdose drug. Louise believes all law enforcement and treatment/rehab center should carry the life-saving drug.
“Where my daughter died, here was a place without Naloxone,” Louise explained.
Many treatment center don’t keep Naloxone or Narcan on the property. Advocates for the anti-overdose drug say it’s needed anytime someone is dealing with people prone to relapses or addicted to opiods.
“I always tell people, if I was allergic to bees, I would have an Epi-Pen,” said Louise.
But, opponents say keeping Naloxone in rehab centers would lead to relapses if offered to clients.
“No one is using Naloxone for fun,” said Louise. “I give these training all the time to people who want to learn about Naloxone and one thing I know, Naloxone is not pleasant. It makes you very sick when you use it. No one is using extra (drugs) just because they have Naloxone.”
Hope, Louise and Angela know there’s no cure-all for the heroin epidemic. They believe with better systems in place and working to rid the world of the stigma surrounding addiction, people will be able to get better, quicker.
“It’s almost like the system don’t care,” said Angela. “Like these are just heroin users. No, they are somebody to someone.They are grand-daughters and grand-sons, sisters, brothers, moms and dads."
Hope said, “I’ve met so many people since Tristan died, who say they are going through the same thing and ask me how do we fix this? I tell them, unfortunately, the way the laws are now, we are still at square one until things change.”
“The stigma surrounding drug use and addiction is killing people.,” said Louise. “Who cares how they get better, as long as they get better. If people are alive and can show up for themselves and their families and participate in the lives of their loved ones, that should be enough. That’s good enough for me. It should just be good enough.”
For more information, read heroin resources and recovery.