‘He was never the same’: Midlothian mom loses brother to opioid addiction, launches non-profit to help others on path to recovery
Virginia expects to receive $530 million from national settlement. Funding will start being released this month.
MIDLOTHIAN, Va. (WWBT) - A Midlothian mother who lost her twin brother to an accidental overdose is on a mission ‘2 End the Stigma’ attached to addiction as Virginia prepares to receive historic funding to combat the opioid crisis.
It has been five years since Jill Cichowicz lost her twin brother, Scott Zebrowski, to an accidental overdose, and not a day goes by that she does not think about him. The moments they spent together were extra special since he lived 3,000 miles away in California.
“I have the blanket that he used to sleep with in my closet, and every night I squeeze it goodnight, and every morning I squeeze it hello,” said Cichowicz, who was comfortably surrounded by family photos spread through her living room.
It is little things that mean so much for Cichowicz when it comes to keeping the memory of her brother alive. She keeps a framed photo of the two, on what would be Scott’s last Christmas, feet away from the front door. She looks at that photo before leaving her home to give her a little more strength to make it through each day.
“We [family] dread holidays,” said Cichowicz as she grew emotional thinking about him. “Our birthday, June 24, that’s probably the hardest thing for me.”
On February 28, 2017, Scott fell to the ground in a Los Angeles Starbucks parking lot and never got up. He had just taken what was believed to be Oxycontin from a friend, but in reality, it was an opioid far more powerful - fentanyl. It took Scott’s life within minutes.
Cichowicz and her family weren’t aware of what happened until they were notified two days later.
Three years before Scott passed away, he suffered a back injury on his job. Cichowicz said the treatment, which involved Oxycontin, sparked an addiction to it.
“I think he had four scripts going for 90 pills a week,” she said. “When he did run out, it was when a Costco pharmacist realized he was being overprescribed.”
Knowing her brother inside out, it did not take long to notice subtle changes.
“We could see he was progressively getting lethargic,” she explained. “When you talk to him, his voice would be slurred; there would be a day or two when he didn’t call you back.”
Cichowicz said her brother was never the same and that oxycontin “woke up the beast.”
Since losing her brother, Cichowicz and her family have turned pain into purpose. They have partnered with the McShin Foundation, a Richmond-based treatment center for addiction, and launched a scholarship fund in Scott’s name to help those in the program afford recovery services.
They also host an annual “A Night for Scott” charity event that raises awareness and funding.
Nearly two years ago, Cichowicz also launched the non-profit " 2 End the Stigma,” hoping to normalize the need for help when it comes to addiction. She said the first thing people must acknowledge is that a problem exists.
“A lot of people are embarrassed,” she said. “They don’t want to talk about it.”
According to the Virginia Department of Health data, the opioid crisis isn’t showing signs of slowing down.
In Virginia, the number of opioid overdose deaths has been trending upward from 2015 to 2020. Data from the final quarter of 2021 has not been released.
At the start of the pandemic in 2020, there were 1,915 deaths, a 47.5 percent increase from the year before – but help is on the way.
According to Victoria LaCivita, a spokesperson for the Virginia Office of the Attorney General, the state will receive $530 million from a national settlement to fight the opioid crisis.
LaCivita said that a national administrator would start releasing the funds this month. Still, it is not clear if the money will be dispersed in increments over a period of time despite an inquiry for clarification. The settlement involves three major pharmaceutical distributors: Cardinal, McKesson, and Amerisource Bergen. Johnson and Johnson is also a part of the settlement.
The money will be the single largest investment in recovery programs across Virginia, according to LaCivita. Most of the funds will go to Virginia’s Opioid Abatement Authority, which provides grants and loans to Virginia agencies and localities.
The second largest investment could come from Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, which agreed to pay up to $6 billion in a nationwide settlement, but litigation is still pending.
It is not clear how much Virginia will get from that settlement.
“No amount of money can bring back loved ones who have been lost due to addiction,” said Attorney General Jason Miyares in a statement. “But this money is a vital step in Virginia’s fight against the opioid epidemic to help Virginians recover from opioid abuse and help prevent addiction in the future through education and community programs.”
A vital step that Cichowicz, who is now developing a prevention program for schools, hopes will make a difference in the lives of people struggling with addiction as her brother did.
“The girl I was before Scott died, she left; she’s not here anymore,” she said. ”I don’t recognize myself anymore, but not in a bad way.”
“I think I look at the world more empathetic like I want to help people.”
You can learn more about 2 End the Stigma HERE.
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