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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Danni's Ripple Effect, A Story of Heroin Addiction and Subsequent Death of a Local Young Woman at Age 22

It’s an epidemic – and one being tackled on many fronts.

Turn on the radio, pick up a newspaper or click on your computer. Chances are you have seen a story about drugs in our region. It could be a police-related story on an arrest for drug trafficking, the struggle of someone overdosing and in the hospital or someone who has become the ultimate victim of drugs. Danni Fitzsimmons is that person.

This is the start of a series on the epidemic of heroin use in our area. Today, you will be introduced to Danni, whose death at the age of 22, inspired this series. Subsequent stories will discuss why heroin has become the drug of choice, how those struggling with addiction can be helped, what law enforcement agencies are doing to curtail its use and trafficking and what Danni’s family is doing to make sure she is not just another statistic. That her life and death counts.

In the end, we hope to show you, the reader, this problem which is hitting too close to home. And, perhaps, provide some insight on stopping this prevalent problem in its tracks.

We are calling it Danni’s Ripple Effect – our way of keeping the conversation going.


- the story follows

By SANDY RHODES


Danielle Fitzsimmons drew her last breath on Oct. 23, but to her family, she died nine days earlier when she took a lethal dose of heroin.

This bright, beautiful 22-year-old lived and worked in Bradford. She also bought her heroin there – a scenario that highlights a deadly problem that is increasingly prevalent in rural Northcentral Pennsylvania.

While her family still mourns her death, they are intent on letting others know about Danni, her addiction, and her untimely death. Their plight is a mere stone’s throw away from other families struggling.

“Shame is what keeps addicts and their families silent,” her mom Paula Thompson said. “I am not ashamed of my daughter and I need people to know that it's OK to talk about this epidemic. Only by discussing it can we find a cure.”
Danni’s ripple effect on the world she left way too soon.

Before drugs

The bright promise of Danni’s early life did not foreshadow what was to come. The Coudersport Area High School graduate had a lot to offer, but never got a chance to show the world.

Thompson describes a dream daughter – “very intelligent, very funny, and witty as hell.”

“Her laugh made me laugh. She was fiercely independent. She was like that her entire life. She never asked me for anything,” says Thompson. “She was a little quirky. She was so smart. Math and science were her way of life. She was so good at that stuff. She was taking college courses in high school.”

Danni studied engineering at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, before switching to computer science.

“I should have known then that something was wrong,” Thompson says about that switch. “She talked to me about all the pressure people (family and friends) were putting on her about school. She didn't want to let people down. She just wanted to work for a while - to have money. I told her ‘Danielle, you're 21 years old. You have to decide what is right for you, not other people.’"

Thompson recalls telling her daughter, “You're young. You have your whole life ahead of you. If you don't want to go to school right now, then don't. You have plenty of time.”

Danni took her mother’s advice and started working in the bakery of the Walmart in Bradford. She was trying to find her own path, but little did she or her family know that the road before her would come to an abrupt end.

“If only I had known she would be gone in a year,” says Thompson.

Danni’s life made an impact on another family member.

Danni and her older brother, Ryan Bodecker, were very close throughout her life – so close that they did drugs together. Bodecker remembers a little sister who he thought he would grow old with, but never had the chance.

“She was an amazing person. Danielle and I had a great relationship,” he said. “We were very close … when she needed something, she would come to me. When she was sad, angry, sick or ever happy, she would come to me.”

But in the end, the pressure of living up to what people expected of her took its toll on Danni.

“That became overwhelming to her. I think that’s why she started using,” Thompson said.

Regardless of how or when she started using heroin, Danni, like countless of others, ended up losing her life as the result of one bad decision.

“She was an amazing, brilliant, beautiful girl who made bad choices,” Thompson said. “I will not hide my head in the sand and pretend that drug addiction isn't real or it only happens to ‘bad’ people.”

And it is happening in rural Pennsylvania more and more (see sidebar). Thompson and Bodecker want to make sure no other families go through the pain of the loss they are experiencing.

The highs and lows of addiction

Thompson is realistic about the pressures of being young – whether in the 1980s or now. But times have changed. Now, each decision to experiment with drugs can be a fatal one.

“In my teen years, I experimented. We all did. Back then it was alcohol, weed, and maybe a little cocaine. I had never even heard of heroin or opiates,” Thompson said. “I experimented, I didn't like it. I didn't continue to do it. Our kids are doing the same thing. They are experimenting. The huge difference is heroin sticks its claws in from the very first time. Society is criticizing our youths for doing the same exact things we did.”

Bodecker knows very well what his sister went through before her death from an overdose. He is also an addict, and would frequently use drugs with Danni.

“Yes, I knew Danielle had a drug problem,” he said matter-of-factly. “I used to get high with Danielle so I guess I have known for about a year.”

Like at other times in her life, Danni would go to her brother for help. And rather than see his sister resort to crime to help get her high, he would give her the money.

“… If she needed money, I would send it to her. I knew what it was for, but I also know what it is like to be sick and not be able to get money,” he said. “I never wanted my sister out robbing people or selling herself, so I would send her money.”

“Not smart on my end, but I was able to justify it. I knew Danielle was using heroin as I have used it with her. I’m not proud of this either.”

According to Bodecker, Danni felt comfortable approaching and talking with him because she knew he would be sympathetic and non-judgmental.

“I, myself, am an addict so she knew I would never judge her,” Bodecker said. “She could tell me things that other people would find shameful, but I completely understood.”

Bodecker says that his own drug use came out of his desire to mask feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame.

“… which is funny because when you use, those are the exact feelings you get,” he said. “You feel shameful for what you are doing so you are stuck in this continuous cycle.

“It’s awful. Not only do you physically withdraw, without it, even after the physical symptoms, your mind is never the same.”

But the draw of the next high is a powerful, magnetic one.

“Your memory always remembers that ‘high’ feeling and you trick yourself into wanting it more and more,” Bodecker said. “You’re feeding yourself
terrible thoughts and before you know it, you are acting on them.”

And unlike some other drugs, heroin is instantly addictive.

“The ‘high’ is never going to be worth all that you will lose. It will destroy your life,” Thompson said. “I cannot wrap my head around that. Remember when we were young and people were smoking cigarettes? Someone would say ‘come on, just take one hit.’ Oh my God, that is happening with heroin. I cannot believe that!”

For Danni, that ‘one more hit’ – her last – came one day in October in Bradford. Nine days later, on Oct. 23 at 9:36 a.m., she would die. Cause of death: heroin overdose.

“I remember those nine days at the Olean (N.Y.) General Hospital,” Thompson said. “It was awful. Her eyes were open, but rolled up so you could only see the whites. Tears would roll down her cheeks like she could hear me.”

For days, Danni’s family stayed by her side, struggling to make peace with her medical situation and what the future would hold for her.
“She would shake really bad sometimes. I swear she could hear me and knew I was there. I finally got her eyes to move down and I swear she saw me.

I told her how so, so sorry I am that this happened to her,” Thompson said. “I told her I know you're probably scared and don't understand what is going on but it's OK, you're safe, I'm right here and I'm not going anywhere.

“She seemed like she was fighting it for a long time.... I watched her fight it for days.”

Danni’s family watched as her temperature hovered around 102 degrees. Doctors were forced to keep her on ice as they tried to stabilize her.

One day during this time, Thompson walked into the room and told Danni she was there. Danni started to shake and try to sit up. Thompson realized then that the fight was too much for Danni.

“I told her I love her so much and I wanted to take her home. My face was inches from her face and I know she was looking at me. I told her how much I wanted her to stay but I knew she must be tired. I told her if it's too hard to fight it, then it's OK. I told her it was OK to leave us.

“I was rubbing her forehead, like petting her. I told her how much I love her but she didn't have to stay if she wanted to go. She was shaking the entire time but when I was rubbing her forehead, I said ‘just relax baby girl, it's OK, I'm right here’ and she closed her eyes and stopped shaking. She never responded to me again, or anyone else. It was the next day we took away all life-saving measures.”

The next few days were horrifying to witness, Thompson said, as Danni was eventually given “massive amounts” of morphine and Ativan every 15 minutes to keep her as comfortable as possible. Thompson knew the end was near.

“I cried and squeezed her hand and listened to her breathe. I knew every breath might be the last. Finally, she breathed in, then out, and that was the end. She didn't take any more breaths. That was so horrible.”

“To actually see my baby take her very last breath; to know that she is gone forever. But her heart remained beating. See, just like the heroin overdose, it stopped her breathing. Eventually her heart stopped. So she died in the hospital, exactly how she died in that house from the heroin.”

Thompson wants everyone to know that while it may appear the person who overdosed is peacefully that is not how it happens.

“It's horrible and gut wrenching to watch and I wouldn't wish that on any parent or loved one,” she said. “Maybe for the person that overdosed, it was like going to sleep, but for the family, it's a horrible nightmare. So you go from praying for a miracle to planning a funeral. To going to visitations and then watching as the casket closes. You feel like screaming because you know that's the last time you'll ever see their face. And now? Now it's terrible sadness, guilt, anger, all kinds of emotions on a daily basis.

“So please, if you are addicted, try to get help. If you aren't, then I'm begging you, do not try it. Do not even go near it. It is evil.”
Ripple Effect

Even now, just three months after her death, Danni’s family is focusing on keeping her memory alive and raising their voices in the hopes of helping others.

“I want her death to have some sort of reason behind it because I just can't understand why she had to go at only 22 years old. I struggle with that. She was so young. I think this will give me what I need. What we all need. Her voice needs to be heard,” Thompson said of telling Danni’s story.

For Danni’s dad, Charlie Fitzsimmons, each day is a reminder of the daughter he lost.

“I think about (her) every day and cannot tell you how much we all miss (her). Time goes on but the thought of not being able to see, talk, or even message each other hurts to the point where time doesn't seem to exist,” he wrote yesterday – the three-month anniversary of Danni’s death.

Bodecker is committed to helping others as well as coping with the death of his little sister.

“I am not doing well with Danni’s passing,” he said. “I struggle with it every day. I have her ashes in a pendant around my neck that I never take off. I cry most days and the other days, I am OK.

“Then, out of nowhere, I’ll remember she is gone and I just lose it. I have never lost someone so close. I don’t even know how to grieve.”

He said counseling is helping, but he also wants to help others in similar situations.

“I would like Danielle’s passing to not be in vain. I want people to hear her story, not just young adults, adolescents, children in school. If we talk to these children while they are young and can instill fear of heroin, they will never want to touch it. I want them to understand the pain my family continues to feel.

“I want them to know, while Danielle was one of the best people I have ever met - her story is not unique. You can get online and find 10,000 other stories of people passing in exactly almost the same fashion. It is so sad.”
However, even after enduring this loss, addiction is hard to live with and a struggle Bodecker must face every day.

“I have not overcome addiction. I don't believe anyone who is an addict ever does - you simply learn to cope. The desire to use is always there. But through NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings, having a sponsor and working the 12-step program, it is very helpful and your odds of staying clean are much higher.”

Counseling also helps; it allows addicts to recognize why they started using drugs in the first place, to see patterns of behavior, and to find other ways to cope.

In the midst of his managing his recovery and coping with a range of difficult emotions, Bodecker wants his sister to be remembered as he saw her.

“Danni was the best, most kind-hearted person I have ever met. She would do anything for anyone. She would give up her coat in freezing weather for a complete stranger.”

It is clear that she learned this empathic trait from her mother.

Just weeks after Danni’s death, Thompson helped bring home the body of a boy – another addict – who died while fleeing from police.

“He got scared because he was on probation, he had a crack pipe, and he ran. The police shot him. He wasn't armed and didn't hurt anyone. It was the drugs that led him to that path. Regardless, he deserved to come home to his family. My heart broke for his mother.”

No one would help the family because of the way he died, but Thompson made sure the boy eventually came home by setting up a fund to pay for his body to be released to his family.

This was the first of many ripple effects set in motion by Danni’s tragic death. Because of the openness and generous spirits of her brother and her mother, there will be many more to come.

“My goal here was to make this heroin epidemic, in our area, real. This is the reality that our children are facing and they are dying, at a rapid rate, because of it. The path of addiction is not good and never will be. It's an entire cycle. My daughter didn't live long enough to start lying, stealing, robbing. That is exactly where heroin addiction leads.”

Bodecker has offered to share his experiences and insights with anyone who could benefit from hearing them. He encourages anyone suffering from addiction or anyone with a family member struggling with addiction to contact him at mailingrcb@gmail.com.

The fight has just begun and is not over – not by a long shot, according to Thompson.

“I am fighting the fight so she will never be forgotten.”