Two Lancaster County moms hope no other mothers end up in their position.
Patricia Zilling and Lea Horner both lost children to heroin overdoses. Both agreed to sit down and relive those painful memories for an 11-minute public service announcement prepared by the county district attorney’s office to combat the growing opioid epidemic.
“If you have the slightest, slightest inkling that there’s something wrong there, you’re right, you need to follow through,” Zilling says in the video. “You need to see what it is.”
Mike D. Zilling, 25, of Denver, died on May 28, 2015. According to his obituary, he was a 2008 graduate of Cocalico High School and was “a loving, unique and goofy kid” who liked music and art.
Zilling says her son smoked marijuana, and he assured her it wouldn’t lead to anything stronger.
“We didn’t know he was doing heroin until the night he overdosed at our home,” she says, tearing up as she recalls her husband’s efforts to resuscitate Mike and the EMTs who brought him back with a Narcan injection.
He spent time in rehabilitation centers and in jail, she says.
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“I used to be glad when he was in jail, because in jail he was safe,” Zilling says. “In jail he would call me and we’d have great conversations. He’d write letters back and forth.”
He told her he didn’t like his addiction and wanted to change, she says. And then she and her husband were called to the hospital, where their son was dead of an overdose.
“There he was, lying on a table, just as peaceful as could be,” she says, sobbing.
Horner’s daughter — Hannah M. Dooty, 21, of Ephrata — died on March 7, 2016. Her obituary says she graduated from Ephrata High School in 2012 and was studying to be a nurse while working as a certified nursing assistant.
Horner recalls her daughter dealing with depression and alcoholism. She got involved with heroin through a boyfriend, she says, but promised her mom she was over that life.
“When she graduated high school I thought we were through the rough times,” she says.
They mother and daughter lived and worked together, and Horner had a bad feeling one day when Hannah didn’t show up for work.
She went home, she says, “and that’s when I found my daughter. She had overdosed. She died beside her bed, on the floor, from a heroin overdose.”
Horner says people shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions if they suspect a friend or family member is using opiates.
“If you know your friend is using a drug, please don’t be afraid to tell somebody that can help them,” she urges. “You’re actually going to be saving her life. Don’t keep the secret. Go with your gut. Tell on your friend.”
“When we talk about prevention, we’re talking about saving lives,” District Attorney Craig Stedman said at a press conference Thursday.
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He commended the two women for sharing their stories for the video.
“This could be anyone, it could be anywhere,” he said. “There’s very little I can say that’s going to have more of an impact than those mothers.”
In 2016, Stedman said, 4,642 people died in Pennsylvania from heroin overdoses. In Lancaster County that year, there were 117 heroin-related deaths.
This year, he said, there have already been 76 deaths that were tied to the drug — on track for a year-end total of more than 180.
“As a prosecutor, our job is to arrest people and hold people accountable,” Stedman said. “The far better solution is through prevention and education.”
Law enforcement will continue to target drug dealers, Stedman said, but “the scope of the problem is just astronomical. We recognize that we’re not going to arrest our way out of the problem. ...
“We have to do more.”
The PSA — in its 11-minute and shorter forms — will be distributed “to schools, churches, law-enforcement agencies, community groups, movie theaters, and whoever else could benefit from the messaging,” Brett Hambright, spokesman for the district attorney, said in a statement Thursday.
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“We hope to ultimately present a look at the epidemic's impact while offering action points to start pushing the rapidly-increasing overdose death rate in the opposite direction,” Hambright said.
The PSA cost $5,000 to produce, Stedman said. Funding for the project came from drug reclamation money, not tax dollars.
“It’s difficult to watch these PSAs,” he noted. “There's a moral responsibility with the position of prosecutor that’s different than it was before.”
Stedman said he hopes the videos lead to “something positive that comes from something absolutely horrific.”
Unfortunately, he said, the path of opioid addiction “leads to two places: prison or the morgue.”