It was March 24, 2013 when Tyler Ross Edwards lost his fight with heroin. He was 19 years old.
His father, Eugene Edwards, found out in a phone call.
“I thought he was in his bedroom, that he had just come home late that night. I started hollering for him, but he didn’t answer,” Edwards said. “I got on the phone with my mom and she said, ‘son, they found grandson.’ I said, ‘what do you mean they found grandson?’ She told me that he overdosed and that he was gone.
Tyler Ross Edwards was one of the three young members of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community to die of heroin overdoses in 24 days, leading to a coordinated response against the epidemic.
The Swinomish Tribe’s efforts have culminated in the opening of the didgwalic Wellness Center in January. didgwallic is a tribe-owned and operated treatment center, that specializes in outpatient recovery as well as providing other services addressing addiction recovery, mental illness and other health issues.
Three years of effort
The rash of deaths among young Swinomish tribe members in 2013 sparked a sense of urgency.
“In 2013 we had three overdoses in 24 days. Three deaths in less than a month.” said Dawn Lee, Program Director at didgwalic. “That was what started us giving out NARCAN kits to the community.”
The tribe delivered NARCAN kits door to door. The kits are used in emergencies to reverse the effects of heroin overdose by blocking the brains receptors that heroin activates.
The kits already have saved lives, Lee said.
“We have had 26 saves with our NARCAN kits. It’s a small community, so one save is absolutely wonderful,” Lee said.
The tribe also opened a treatment center, completely owned, financed and managed by the Swinomish tribe.
“We had deaths at Swinomish that motivated leadership, program members, and administrative people like me to address the opioid epidemic, so we were specifically impacted by young people dying,” said John Stephens, the CEO the didgwalic Wellness Center. “It was unacceptable to the community so we had an obligation to address it.”
“Drug addiction within the tribal community itself has driven us to make these changes and expand our services. We started providing money to send people off to detox and utilize other treatments that they couldn’t get because of insurance issues. We also expanded our outreach efforts because the tribe knows [addiction] is a problem,” Lee said. “The tribe has been very supportive, like, ‘How can we help? What do we need to do?”
The treatment center is open to their non-native neighbors as well. John Stephens said it was the right thing to open the center to people outside of the tribe.
“In one of our executive meetings a tribal senator was like, ‘Why are we doing this? It’s going to cost a lot of money upfront and a lot of resources and staff time to develop this program.’ They were wondering why the tribe would do it. In the middle of that executive session, one of the senators said ‘Because we have shown that we can do this and because we have an obligation to share it with our non-native neighbors,’” said Stephens. “In effect, it was a moral responsibility to provide comprehensive services to the region.”
Although the opioid crisis exists in all demographics, according to the CDC in 2014 Native Americans had the highest death rate from the drug than any other community.
“Statistically speaking, Native people have the highest rates of a variety of measures of health issues including mortality, morbidity, and substance abuse disorders. Many researchers are now concluding that those factors are both the result of current ongoing discrimination that plays in the dominate society, but it’s also symptomatic in an artifact of historical trauma with native communities being physically, economically and socially impacted by basically non-native migration and population growth,” Stephens said.
Stephens also said that the opioid crisis has hit not only the Swinomish tribe but other neighboring Native communities.
“The opioid abuse situation is a public health crisis in both the native and non-native community but statistically it’s going to be a little higher in the Native communities. Not just in the Swinomish tribe, but other neighboring tribes and other Native tribes that reside in the three-county area,” said Stephens.
“This has to stop”
Like so many other stories, what once began for Ross Edwards as an opioid pain killer addiction led to an insidious year-and-a-half battle with heroin.
Only a week after graduating from his second treatment program, Ross Edwards died.
“I wasn’t expecting that phone call that morning,” his father said. “I thought that the treatment had helped and that he was doing well. He spent the weekend with myself and his sister and brother. The day before he left he was working on our neighbor’s car, fixing their fuel pump. He always wanted to help.”
The death of Ross Edwards and the two other young tribe members was cause for a major shift in how tribal leaders decided to combat drugs and addiction within the community.
“When they found him it made a big difference down here. It had an effect on Swinomish. Forty-three people had joined the wellness program [after the deaths] and like 30 of them are still sober,” Edwards said.
Edwards is happy for everyone getting clean and remaining sober, though he still harbors great sadness for the loss of his son.
“We try to be as positive as possible. Every day is different when I wake up. I sit, waiting for the door to open and for him to walk through. His birthday is hard and March 24. That’s when we lost him,” he said.
Edwards started a group on Facebook called, “This Has To Stop,” which aims to remain transparent to the cause of Ross Edwards’ death. Edwards says it is important to be open about addiction. He also travels around to schools to speak with young kids about his son’s story and the truths about drug addiction.
“We need to give our kids a future here. These kids are our future, what are we going to do without them? Who is going to run our tribe and [preserve] our cultural life,” he said.
Although Ross Edwards’ family still grapples with his death, his younger siblings have kept letters from their brother warning them to stay away from drugs. They now feel that they are left with a duty to educate the community about addiction.
“I don’t think it’s fair [he died]. I think it’s fair that [his death] has helped a lot of people by sobering them up. There is a reason for everything in life and we have to believe the reason Tyler left was for all these other people to come forward and get help,” Edwards said.
Drug addiction is close to Edwards, but he has made it his mission to accept and encourage all of his tribe members and neighbors who may be struggling with the disease.
“We are all humans, we all make mistakes, and we need to give them a chance to straighten out their lives and keep walking down the road.”