A lifelong resident of El Dorado, Kristi Graham died earlier this month.
She wasn’t exactly well-known in the community. When she died, not much appeared about it, with the exception of a short death notice that ran in the El Dorado News-Times. The notice simply stated that the 46-year-old died Jan. 4 and arrangements are pending.
But it’s what wasn’t written that stood out to Barbara Dalby.
Dalby, a former classmate of Graham’s who now lives out of state, said Graham suffered from an opioid addiction, one that led her to seclude herself from others and ultimately ended her life.
“She had her demons,” Dalby said.
Dalby described Graham as “a vivacious, bubbly, quick-witted teenager” in high school. She said the pair lost touch when Dalby moved out of state, though they ran into each other at a business in El Dorado when Dalby was in town for a visit.
In that encounter, Dalby said, Graham was impaired and wearing only one shoe. Dalby said she gave Graham a ride home and suspected that she might one day be lost to addiction.
“She had been living this life for a long time. Secluded from society and isolated in her home with the pills that could never kill her pain,” Dalby said. “She was just, in that addiction, isolated.”
But Graham was far from alone in her addiction.
Arkansas had the second highest opioid prescription rate in the country in 2016 with more than 114 prescriptions per 100 people. Alabama had the highest rate in the nation with a rate of 121 prescriptions per 100 people.
And, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention, that rate only gets worse in Union County, where the 2016 opioid prescription rate was 131.5 per 100 people - one of the highest rates in southern Arkansas.
Opioids are a class of drug that includes the illegal drug heroin, synthetic versions such as fentanyl, as well as prescription pain relievers like hydrocodone, oxycodone and morphine.
Dalby said when she heard about Graham’s death, she tried to find out more information and discovered that Graham had not been buried yet as there was no one to pay for her funeral costs. She has since started a GoFundMe page to hopefully raise the roughly $9,000 needed to pay for arrangements and services through Perry’s Funeral Chapels.
By Wednesday afternoon, $250 had been raised. Dalby is asking for those who also graduated from El Dorado High School in 1990 or those who knew Graham to try and donate something toward the funeral costs to help. If more than the needed $9,000 is raised, Dalby said the remainder would be donated to a drug treatment program.
“When your mind is altered, you are not usually the one to pre-plan your funeral,” Dalby wrote on the GoFundMe page. “In this case, the burden often falls on the community, estranged family, or even high school friends. But let it be a lesson to us all that there is a very ugly side to the opioid epidemic.”
States, counties and cities are trying to tackle the opioid crisis in a variety of ways, from laws requiring a prescription drug monitoring program to equipping local law enforcement with Naloxone, which is used to block the effects of opioids during an overdose.
Another tactic has been to use the courts. There have been roughly 100 lawsuits filed against top-tier opioid companies by cities, counties or states across the U.S. so far, and Arkansas has opted to try and join the chorus with its own unique strategy. A litigation team representing the Association of Arkansas Counties and the Arkansas Municipal League is working on filing group litigation to include as many Arkansas cities and counties as will agree to sign on to the suit.
On Tuesday, a federal judge in Cleveland overseeing the more than 180 lawsuits against drug companies brought by local communities across the country, urged participants on all sides to work toward a common goal of reducing overdose death. Judge Dan Polster said he believes everyone from drugmakers to doctors to individuals bear some responsibility for the crisis and haven’t done enough to stop it.
The government tallied 63,600 overdose drug deaths in 2016, another record. Most of the deaths involved prescription opioids such as OxyContin or Vicodin or related illicit drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.
The epidemic is the most widespread and deadly drug crisis in the nation’s history, and for now shows little sign of abating.
Targets of the lawsuits include drugmakers such as Allergan, Johnson & Johnson, and Purdue Pharma, and the three large drug distribution companies, Amerisource Bergen, Ohio-based Cardinal Health and McKesson. Drug distributors and manufacturers named in these and other lawsuits have said they don’t believe litigation is the answer but have pledged to help solve the crisis.
Polster likened the epidemic to the 1918 flu which killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, while pointing out a key difference.
“This is 100 percent man-made,” Polster said. “I’m pretty ashamed that this has occurred while I’ve been around.”
Reporting from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Associated Press was used in this story.
Madeleine Leroux can be reached at 870-862-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.