Grieving mother and sister turn their loss into an effort to prevent death from fentanyl.
Beth Weinstock says her son Eli’s death from an unintentional fentanyl overdose last March caused her to slow down and pay attention to the world around her, to the directions the universe was pushing her.
“Grieving erases everything,” she says.
Eli, a graduate of Bexley High School and a student at the American University, was found with kratom, a legal herbal supplement, and the synthetic opioid fentanyl in his system. Beth, who is a doctor, doesn’t know what Eli thought he was taking, but learned that there was a simple test that alerted him to the presence of fentanyl. It could have saved his life.
What the universe was urging her to do, Beth said, was to help prevent such accidents from happening to others. She’s made it her mission to get fentanyl test strips in the hands of every 15 to 25 years that she can.
In the United States, more than 100,000 people have died of unintentional overdose in the 12 months ending April 2021, a 28.5% increase from the previous 12 months. Almost two-thirds of those deaths involved some form of fentanyl, which is increasingly seen in cocaine, pressed tablets and methamphetamine. Fentanyl test strips allow people to check if a pill, powder, or crystal contains fentanyl by dissolving the medicine in water and placing some of the resulting solution on the test strip.
Overdose crisis dispatches: Light in the darkness
On a beautiful August evening, Beth and her daughter Olivia, 22, Eli’s older sister, visited Eli’s grave. They shared a beer and with the energy they felt there, near Eli, they began to craft a plan for an organization that would take their grief and transform it.
In September, they launched the association BirdieLight, to educate parents and young people through small group meetings on how to reduce the harms posed by fentanyl use. They want to share this message with high schools and colleges across the country.
The name BirdieLight comes from a nickname Eli’s best friends in college called themselves, as well as a reference to how, in the wake of someone’s death, people often say that the light of those who are lost persists.
The logo is a bird wearing a miner’s helmet. “I started to think about birds, and the canary in the coal mine is kind of the fentanyl test strip,” says Beth.
Finally, they saw that Eli’s name was in the middle of the word, just as it is at the heart of their work.
Their message, according to Olivia, is transparent and realistic: “If you’re planning on taking something, we say, ‘Here’s a safe way to make that decision.’ Closer to the safe. [It’s] the best is to test.
They point out that the test strips are not 100 percent effective, and they point out the need to have the overdose reversal drug naloxone (or Narcan) available and never use it alone. In Ohio, test strips are still considered illegal drug paraphernalia, but legislation is underway to change that.
Olivia and Beth say that at Eli’s memorial many people said he was their best friend. Eli could bring people together, and in this way, Beth and Olivia carry on his legacy. The more they do this work, they say, the more they are still with it.
Recently, Beth got a call from students who wanted test strips, and when she met them, she learned that they were 20, the same age as Eli.
She felt like she was there to save their lives.
This story is from the January 2022 issue of Columbus monthly.