Almost 90 percent of all overdose deaths in Lucas County in 2020 were caused by the deadly drug.

TOLEDO, Ohio — It might have been lost in the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it never went away.

When it comes to the opioid epidemic, the synthetic opioid fentanyl is a killer that’s ruining families.

“I said when are you going to hit bottom? When are you going to hit bottom?” 

Peggy Montgomery was in a daily battle watching her son, Dustin Doust, battle a drug addiction.

Dustin would get caught up in it, get sober again, and then fall back into dangerous habits.

She had to confront him.

“I finally said, you’re using. He cried and I cried and he said ‘Yeah I am.’ I said, ‘Well what are you using?’ And I never thought I would hear the word heroin. It was like somebody punched me in the heart,” Peggy said.

Dustin agreed to go to rehab in Florida and Peggy thought he got better. He even moved back to Ohio.

But on Jan. 26, 2018, Peggy heard her husband’s phone ringing early in the morning.

She answered but her older son, Donovan, had grave news he didn’t want to give his mom. 

“I said, ‘Is it Dustin?'” Montgomery said. “He said, ‘Mom, please, please just let me talk to Rex.”

“Just tell me,” she asked again, “Is it Dustin?'” 

When her son said, yes, he was calling about Dustin, Montgomery asked, “Just tell me he’s OK.”

“I can’t tell you that,” Donovan said. 

“Just tell me he’s not dead!” she pleaded.

Dustin was found dead in his Port Clinton home, at just 35 years old, from an overdose of something much stronger than heroin. It was fentanyl.

“And I just threw the phone to my husband and just crumbled. And just cried and cried. I couldn’t believe it.”

Surging overdose statistics

Montgomery is not alone in her pain over losing a loved one. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control can Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics published data in March that shows yearly drug overdose deaths have reached another record high.

It said 105,752 people died from October, 2020 to October, 2021 and two-thirds of those deaths were from synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Suspected drug overdoses in Lucas County come to Robyn Shinaver, the acting director of the coroner’s office’s toxicology lab.

She and her staff determine which drugs were in someone’s system and which ones caused their death.

Fentanyl is the biggest offender right now, by a wide margin. 

 “And the cases that come through are so incredibly heart-wrenching. Because no one is exempt from being affected by this,” Shinaver said.

Following the national trend, fentanyl-related deaths are also up in Lucas County. Numbers from the Ohio Department of Health show in 2014, there were 23 fentanyl related deaths.

In 2015, there were 39 deaths.

In 2016, it jumped up to 99.

But the deaths from fentanyl kept increasing, up to 108 in 2017. And 138 in 2018. And then a huge increase to 192 deaths in 2019.

Digging into the 2020 numbers, with information we obtained from the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, there was a massive increase to 273 deaths from fentanyl.  

That was 89 percent of the total of overdose deaths from 2020. 

For 2021, the county health department said 106 of the 132 overdose deaths from January to June were from fentanyl.

It’s the biggest evil right now in drug overdoses.

“The user is seeking out the fentanyl and they’re seeking out the better fentanyl.” Shinaver said.

When asked if people use fentanyl even if they know it could kill them, she said, “Absolutely. And that’s part of the addiction. And that’s the sad part of the addiction.”

Butler County, in southwest Ohio, has a similar population to Lucas County. Deaths from fentanyl are also going increasing there. In 2019, there were 129 fentanyl-related deaths.  In 2020, it went up to 155 deaths. Deaths dropped to 149 in 2021 but they’re on pace for another increase this year.

“Sadly, it looks like that’s going to hold true for the remainder of the year. We have not seen any reason to think that it’s going to lessen any,” said Martin Schneider, the administrator of the Butler County, Ohio, coroner’s office.

In York County, Pennsylvania, which also has a similar population to Lucas County, the coroner’s office saw 114 fentanyl deaths in 2019.

Deaths went up significantly to 185 in 2020.

But there was a drop in 2021, to 113 fentanyl overdose deaths.

Preventing tragedy

Schneider, in Butler County, said counties in Ohio must work together to prevent fentanyl from getting out on the streets.

And at the Lucas County toxicology lab, Shinaver said county leaders need to better educate the public about fentanyl’s dangers and continue to work with police and recovery centers to slow down the tragedies.

“Your life is far, far more valuable than that instant high. And please seek help,” Shinaver said.

Peggy Montgomery is still grieving Dustin’s death but she’s not letting her pain stop her from helping others.

She works at Arrowhead Behavioral Health in Maumee, a treatment center that is working every day to help people beat drug addiction.

She said the key is finding more addiction specialists and she’s pushing for more education about how deadly fentanyl is, so other moms don’t get that terrible phone call. 

But she also feels guilt, even though she worked for years to get Dustin sober.

“I didn’t fix him. I was supposed to protect him and fix him and I couldn’t fix him.”

If you or a loved one needs help with addiction, naloxone is available for free at the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department.

And you can hear about local treatment options by calling the Lucas County CARES line at 419- 904-CARE.