Weekly Feature



2018-08-15 / Lifestyles

‘Prescribed to Death’

Exhibit honors 22,000 victims of opioid crisis
by HOLLY N. LIPKA
Reporter


A woman touches a small face mounted to the “Prescribed to Death” exhibit wall. In total are 22,000 engraved white pills on the wall, representing the number of people who died from a prescription opioid overdose in 2015. A woman touches a small face mounted to the “Prescribed to Death” exhibit wall. In total are 22,000 engraved white pills on the wall, representing the number of people who died from a prescription opioid overdose in 2015. None of Michael Israel’s doctors warned him about addiction. The Buffalo native was attending the University at Buffalo with hopes of becoming an architect when he was prescribed hydrocodone, an opioid that relieves pain, to alleviate his Crohn’s disease.

“Michael was diagnosed at age 12, and he did pretty good for a while, but when he went to college, he just wanted to be like everybody else,” said Avi Israel, Michael’s father. “His disease did not allow him to do that.”

After their son had taken the powerful painkillers for more than a year, Israel and his wife, Julie, noticed a deterioration in Michael’s physical and mental health.


Rows of small faces line the “Prescribed to Death” exhibit wall to honor victims of the opioid crisis. Rows of small faces line the “Prescribed to Death” exhibit wall to honor victims of the opioid crisis. “He was getting really thin, he was isolating himself … but we attributed that to his disease,” said Israel.

In December 2010, Michael told Israel he was addicted to his pain medication. Israel alerted Michael’s doctors, but despite his concerns, they continued to write prescriptions.

On June 4, 2011, Michael, overwhelmed by his addiction, coupled with depression and anxiety, agreed to enroll himself in a detox program.

“He called his drug counselor and it took around five minutes for her to call back and say there was no bed.”

Moments after the phone call, Israel heard a shot ring out from his son’s bedroom; Michael took his own life.

He was 20 years old.


Michael Israel is shown with his father, Avi Israel, on his 15th birthday. Michael Israel is shown with his father, Avi Israel, on his 15th birthday. According to the National Safety Council, one in four Americans has been directly impacted by the opioid crisis; 40 percent still do not consider it to be a threat to their family.

With the number of opioid overdose deaths increasing each year, it can be easily forgotten that behind every statistic is a face — the face of someone succumbed to his or addiction.

The National Council decided to bring these faces to life with “Prescribed to Death,” a traveling exhibit that honors victims of this crisis. The exhibit is free and will be erected from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Aug. 20 through 26 at Canalside Buffalo.

Mounted on the 40-by-8-foot exhibit wall are 22,000 engraved white pills, each representing the face of someone lost to a prescription opioid overdose in 2015.

“We knew that we wanted to create something very powerful that people could walk away from and never forget,” said Maureen Vogel, spokesperson for the National Safety Council. “The opioid crisis is far more widespread than people know. The hope is that when you’re face to face with it, it will make you think differently about opioids.”

The memorial is accompanied by resources that help visitors both safely dispose of unused pills in their homes and facilitate discussions with prescribers about alternatives.

Upon leaving, visitors will receive “Seal & Send” medication disposal envelopes and “Opioids: Warn Me” labels to affix to their insurance cards.

“One-third of people who take prescribed opioids don’t know it’s an opioid. These labels are intended to prompt those conversations between you and your prescriber,” said Vogel.

Guests who have lost loved ones to opioid overdose can honor them at Canalside by adding their loved one’s name to a digital memorial. Guests may also bring photos, flowers or personal effects to display. In addition, visitors can enter a small remembrance room to view some of Michael’s personal effects, including the last letter he left before he died.

Since Michael’s death, Israel founded Save the Michaels of the World, a nonprofit organization that offers education and prevention services for individuals and families dealing with opioid addiction. In any given week, the organization places 50 to 80 people in treatment.

“It feels good to help, but it’s a double edged sword. We have saved a lot of people. I wish that there was somebody there to help us save Michael.”

Israel remembers seeing the exhibit for the first time in Chicago at its unveiling in November.

“I walked in, and it was like somebody hit me with a two-by-four across the chest,” said Israel. “To see row after row after row of small faces and to think that they all didn’t have to die is more of a statement than anything that I could say about Michael.”

“It’s beyond Michael. It’s a whole lot of Michaels, and we all have a responsibility to make sure that we stop this senseless disease.”

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