Symposium in Bethel Park to address opioid problem
Although she wasn’t his mother, Mt. Lebanon resident Kelli Wall considered Georgia native Christian Cunningham her son.
C.C., as friends often called him, moved north after he started dating her daughter Lexi, and Kelli opened her house to him.
“He became a member of my family. Had his own room. And when my daughter went away to Penn State, he stayed with me,” she said. “He was my kid. Same rules: make your bed, take out the trash.”
Eventually, he moved in with some “buddies,” as Wall referred to them, before returning to her house in November.
“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what,” she recalled. “He was sick all the time. He became moody, totally unlike him.”
She learned, by his admission, that he was using heroin. They promptly looked into treatment, but he found the proposed regimen to be daunting.
“I said, ‘Let’s take you to somebody else and see what they say, and then you can make a decision,’” Wall said. “That was on Saturday, Feb. 20. I found him Tuesday morning, 10:30 a.m., in his room, dead. And Narcan was not an option, because he had been gone for hours.”
In the aftermath of the 23-year-old’s overdose, the Wall home became a crime scene.
“Probably the most disturbing thing is that we had to wait for three hours for the coroner to come,” she said, “because he was the third drug overdose that morning, by 10:30.”
Realizing that Christian’s story is far from unique, Wall has worked on organizing “Stop the Opioid Pandemic: South Hills Symposium,” scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 19 at Christ United Methodist Church, 44 Highland Road, Bethel Park.
Wall, who is director of development for Gateway Rehab, is bringing in an impressive array of participants, including two top Allegheny County officials: Dr. Karen Hacker, health department director, and Dr. Karl Williams, medical examiner.
Symposium supporters and participants
• Sally Wiggin, emcee
• Dr. Karen Hacker, director, Allegheny County Health Department
• Dr. Karl Williams, Allegheny County medical examiner
• District Judge Blaise Larotonda, Mt. Lebanon
• District Judge Ron Arnoni, Bethel Park
• U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair
• State Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Jefferson Hills
• State Rep. Dan Miller, D-Mt. Lebanon
• Sage’s Army, nonprofit drug awareness and prevention organization
• Highmark Health
• Gateway Rehab
Representatives from a dozen or more service providers are scheduled to be on hand with information, and Ashley Potts, an Allegheny Health Network social worker, will provide firsthand perspective by speaking about her battle with addiction. The program wraps up with a panel discussion and open conversation among those in attendance.
“I really want it to be a valuable use of people’s time, not too much information, but enough that we get their attention,” Wall explained. “They now know what it is, what to look for and where to go for help.”
Although the symposium is taking place in the South Hills, she encourages attendance from throughout the region.
“Everybody’s my audience. It’s kids. It’s the parents. It’s employers. It’s everybody, because it affects everybody. If it hasn’t affected you, it’s going to in some way.”
The program includes a strong educational component.
“It starts with a heightened awareness and a deep understanding of addiction,” Wall said. “It’s not a moral failing. It follows the trajectory of other diseases, I’ve learned. It’s a brain disease.”
In Christian’s case, Wall learned from his family in Georgia that he was exposed to addictive substances at an early age.
“He was hurt breaking up a fight. And in the hospital, they gave him OxyContin,” she said. “He was maybe 15, 16 at the time. That was the start.”
Wall’s objective with the symposium and beyond – her efforts are not going to stop there – is to prevent others from getting started.
“Hey, if I can save one person, save one family from finding what I found,” she said, “then my life will have been well-lived.
For more information, contact Kellilwall@outlook.com.