UNTINGTON, W.Va. — The white car had stopped in the middle of the highway. The driver was slumped behind the wheel, her breaths faint and few.

Her head was bobbing, chin to chest; her pupils were the size of a pinpoint. The car was strewn with syringes. Paramedics inserted a needle of naloxone, an opioid antidote, into her left arm — the one with fewer scars. A minute passed. Two. At last, Taylor Wilson’s eyes flickered opened below the bright ambulance lights.

Taylor’s overdose was the first of 28 that would be reported in this small city on the Ohio River in the span of five hours on Aug. 15, 2016. Frantic calls flooded in to 911: Heroin users were passed out on dining room floors and in convenience store bathrooms. “People are coming here and dying,” one caller said. The horror of that afternoon made national news: CNN, Fox News, Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times.

Then the reporters left. Taylor’s story, though, was just beginning.

Her parents, John and Leigh Ann Wilson, would spend the next 41 days trying to get help for their blue-eyed bookworm, who had recently turned 21. They drove door to door in search of inpatient treatment beds to isolate Taylor from her heroin world. They sought out medicine to curb her cravings. They even wrestled with whether to have their daughter involuntarily committed to a hospital.

As longtime health care professionals, the Wilsons thought they knew how to navigate the system. Leigh Ann had worked for years as a paramedic before becoming a home health worker; John was the lead residential therapist at an Ohio facility for troubled adolescent boys. They both had a sense of the hard road ahead.

But for 41 days, they ran into roadblocks far greater than they’d ever imagined.

On the 42nd, a beautiful Sunday in late September, Taylor Wilson overdosed again. This time, no one was able to call 911 in time.

Leigh Ann and John Wilson play back those 42 days in a constant loop. They remember the clinics with lengthy waiting lists; the treatment centers that wouldn’t take Medicaid; the doctors who discouraged Taylor from inpatient treatment, saying she could do without it. They wonder, more than anything, why it’s so hard to get addiction treatment in the state with the nation’s highest drug death rate — 818 deaths last year, most of them from opioids.

“There doesn’t seem to be enough emphasis on what we’re losing.”

John Wilson

Here in Huntington, population 49,000, health officials estimate a staggering 1 in 4 residents is dependent on opioids, from squalling newborns shaking with withdrawal symptoms to powerful lawyers immobilized by addiction. It’s so bad that the mayor carries around a naloxone injector in case he encounters an overdose victim. The city has tried setting up a needle exchange, hiring a drug czar, even suing the drug companies that brought pain pills to the state of West Virginia. None of those tactics have stopped the epidemic.

“There doesn’t seem to be enough emphasis on what we’re losing,” John Wilson said, fighting the tears falling down his face.

His daughter had been a Girl Scout. She’d loved to ride horses. He thought she even had the potential to play soccer in college. Taylor loved words — reading others’ and writing her own — so much that she wanted to become a librarian.

Now she was in the throes of an addiction she could not shake, and no one seemed able to offer any more help than a syringe full of naloxone.

“This pain has gone too far,” John Wilson said.

John Wilson
John Wilson, a therapist who works with troubled boys, couldn’t find his daughter Taylor adequate addiction treatment.

‘You’re going to get her back in a pine box’

The overdose that left Taylor slumped behind the wheel of her white Kia Soul was her third in a year.

Her dad had found her after her first, back in the summer of 2015. He’d heard a loud thump in the lower level of his house. Taylor was unconscious. After her second, in March of last year, Leigh Ann had received an anonymous call saying Taylor had recently entered cardiac arrest and almost died.

“If you don’t pick your daughter up,” the caller said, “you’re going to get her back in a pine box.”

Leigh Ann placed Taylor on leave from her college classes at Marshall University in Huntington and her job at the Wendy’s drive-through window. She made countless calls before she found a bed at Karen’s Place, an all-women’s Christian treatment center in a lakefront lodge just across the Kentucky state line. The Wilsons scraped together $4,000 for a 28-day inpatient program that included counseling, spiritual mentoring, and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Patients were only allowed to receive visitors every two weeks and make 15 minutes’ worth of phone calls every seven days, much to Taylor’s frustration.

With 12 days left, Taylor checked herself out. She soon got back together with her boyfriend, who had a long rap sheet of drug possession offenses and was also addicted.

The following month, Taylor turned 21. She celebrated her birthday with a new hairdo, paid for by her mother — and later that day, with heroin.

The Marcum Terrace housing complex in Huntington, a hot spot for heroin distribution, is where Taylor bought heroin.
The overpass in Huntington that Taylor was driving on when she overdosed on Aug. 15, 2016.

A shortage of treatment beds

Her addiction, like so many others, had started with prescription pain pills. But as lawmakers cracked down on pill mills, drug users across the state and the nation turned to heroin. Taylor did, too. It was more convenient to get, and often cheaper. It was also more deadly, especially when spiked with synthetic opioids like fentanyl or an elephant tranquilizer known as carfentanil, so potent that a dose the size of two salt grains could kill.

Spiked batches of heroin had the potential to ravage a whole town. One day last summer, there were 17 overdoses in Akron, Ohio. Another day, there were 10 in Columbus, Ohio. The cluster in Huntington was one of the worst. Two of the 28 drug users who overdosed on that day died. And many who survived got no treatment beyond the jolt of naloxone to revive them.

That’s a familiar problem. West Virginia officials estimate 150,000 residents — 8 percent of its population — needed substance abuse treatment in 2016. Just a fifth received help from treatment providers belonging to the state’s top behavioral health association. And only 156 detox beds were available across the entire state.

“There are not enough resources available,” said Kim Miller, director of corporate development at the Prestera Center, West Virginia’s largest behavioral health service provider. “There’s a workforce shortage. If we could pay people better, we could have a more robust workforce — more docs, more psychiatrists, more counselors — and more treatment.”

Karen's Place
Last May, Taylor checked herself out early from Karen’s Place, a rehab facility in Louisa, Ky. Her parents didn’t have the money to send her back in August.

‘It has to stop here’

After her third overdose, when her car stopped on the bridge in the middle of traffic, Taylor called her mom from St. Mary’s Medical Center. The paramedics had brought her there, and she needed a ride home.

In the emergency room, Leigh Ann found Taylor sitting in a hospital gown, chatting about her car, her job, her boyfriend, as if everything were normal. It was too much for her mother. “It has to stop here,” she thought to herself.

At wit’s end, Leigh Ann asked John if they should involuntary commit Taylor to a psychiatric hospital by way of a legal document known as a mental hygiene order. John knew such an order would have repercussions; their daughter could lose her ability to own a gun or hold government jobs requiring security clearance. But Leigh Ann reasoned that such consequences wouldn’t matter if they had to bury Taylor.

And, since Taylor right then didn’t get the gravity of her addiction, they feared her release from St. Mary’s could amount to a death sentence.

“I had to do something to try and save my angel,” John said.

He agreed to try for a commitment order.

Talia Bronshtein/STATWest Virginia Health Statistics Center, Vital Statistics System, Drug Overdose Database

A judge met with Taylor in the hospital and presented two options: comply with your parents, avoiding a messy court hearing, or defend your competency in court. Taylor chose the former.

Before dawn on Aug. 16, a police officer transported Taylor in handcuffs to Charleston’s Highland Hospital for detox. The lead psychiatrist there diagnosed Taylor with addiction and depression.

But she thought Taylor had a shot at recovery if she could break out of a codependent cycle of using drugs with her boyfriend. Leigh Ann worried that Taylor’s first call from the detox center was to her boyfriend — but drove out there regardless to bring her clean clothes.

Leigh Ann thought Taylor, once detoxed, should enter a residential recovery program. Four years earlier, Leigh Ann had admitted herself to Prestera’s inpatient treatment center for alcoholism and depression. Knowing her daughter, she doubted anything less would cut it.

Highland’s psychiatrist, however, decided Taylor should be released after seven days with a recommendation for intensive outpatient counseling. That isn’t uncommon: It’s hard for providers to get insurers to pay for more than a week to 10 days of inpatient treatment. A Highland Hospital spokesperson declined to discuss Taylor, citing privacy regulations, but said in a statement that “each patient’s treatment is based on that patient’s clinical needs.”

Leigh Ann disagreed. Taylor had already overdosed at least three times. Her relationship with her boyfriend fueled and reinforced her addiction. Leigh Ann knew deep down that outpatient counseling wouldn’t be enough for her daughter.

Leigh Ann Wilson
Leigh Ann Wilson stands outside the Barboursville, W.Va., home where her daughter Taylor fatally overdosed on Sept. 25, 2016.

‘Most of the people on that list will die’

Days after her discharge, Taylor received even more bad news: She had contracted hepatitis C, likely as the result of sharing needles with her boyfriend. It could be treated, but she’d have to stay away from needles. She believed medication-assisted treatment was necessary to help her withstand withdrawals.

“It’s the only way I’ll make it,” Taylor told her mother.

Evidence suggests that the combination of counseling and prescription drugs to reduce cravings can be more effective than abstinence or 12-step programs. But West Virginia lawmakers, concerned users might trade one addiction for another, have restricted the availability of medication. The demand for treatment has far outstripped supply.

Taylor put her name on Prestera’s waiting list for Suboxone, an opioid-based drug to reduce withdrawal symptoms. No one told her how long she might have to wait, but she’d heard it could be months.

“There aren’t enough resources to accommodate the addiction problem in the heroin capital of the U.S.,” Taylor later wrote to a reporter. “If no one changes it this whole city will go under.”

While she waited for treatment, Taylor had agreed to live at her father’s house, located in a secluded part of Barboursville, the quiet suburb outside Huntington where both John and Leigh Ann had settled after their divorce years earlier.

Taylor Wilson
John Wilson at his home in Barboursville, W.Va.

She had two conditions: access to library books and the ability to write back to her friend John Stiltner II, a recovering heroin addict who’d sent her a letter during her hospital stay. John Wilson had strict rules — no computer, no cellphone, and no car — but agreed to those conditions if he could read Taylor’s letters before she mailed them.

Taylor’s recent overdose weighed on her father’s mind. During her stay at Highland, he’d picked up her Kia Soul from the impound lot, where the police had written “N-E-E-D-L-E-S” on the windshield as a safety precaution. Driving home, he had felt overcome with emotions — anger, confusion, embarrassment, and sadness — but cleaned out the syringes to keep his daughter safe. John had Taylor wipe the letters off the windshield.

“You have to straighten yourself up,” he told her, “or I’ll lose you.”

“You have to straighten yourself up, or I’ll lose you.”

John Wilson

In late August, John decided to keep his long-standing plans for a vacation. He couldn’t trust Taylor at home alone, so he asked her to stay with her mother. The day Leigh Ann picked up Taylor, their daughter seemed giddy and her eyes looked dilated.

Leigh Ann wondered if, despite all their rules, Taylor had somehow found a way to get high.

Back at her mom’s house, Taylor kept her head down in World War II books. And she kept in touch with Stiltner through letters and text messages on a phone she had managed to keep hidden from her dad.

“Sorry my handwriting sucks, my hands have been really shaky lately,” Taylor wrote to John the week after leaving Highland. “Can you send me [N.A.] meeting times? … I think it would help me.”

Taylor started attending N.A. meetings three times a week and looking for a sober living apartment. But the meetings only did so much as life around her grew more stressful.

Taylor had helped identify the Ohio dealer who allegedly sold her heroin on the day she overdosed. It was that same batch of drugs, apparently spiked with synthetic opioids, that had killed two and sent 25 others to the brink of death on that August day. Taylor was expected to testify against the dealer later in the month; if she failed to show up, she could end up in jail.

Lt. David McClure
Lt. David McClure, a Cabell County EMS paramedic, revived Taylor after she overdosed in her car on Aug. 15, 2016.

If that wasn’t enough, CNN ran a story about the brutal afternoon in Huntington. It described the way she looked after her overdose: drool dribbling from her mouth, a syringe in her lap. Taylor had a hard time reading that. She was upset, too, to read a comment from Lt. David McClure, the senior paramedic who’d revived her. He said no overdose victim had ever thanked him.

She bought McClure a peach-scented Yankee Candle in hopes of being the first.

To help Taylor out, Leigh Ann scheduled appointments with both a physician and psychiatrist. And, still hoping her daughter could get inpatient treatment, she called Karen’s Place, the center where Taylor had stayed briefly after her second overdose.

They had open beds, a staffer said, but there was another problem. Taylor got her insurance through West Virginia’s Medicaid and the facility, despite being less than 50 miles away, was in Kentucky. It couldn’t accept West Virginia Medicaid. Leigh Ann and John no longer had the money to pay the thousands of dollars out of pocket.

By this time, Taylor had come around to her mother’s belief that a bed in a supervised facility was better than outpatient care. She talked to a crisis counselor at Prestera, admitting that a few days earlier she’d relapsed with a small amount of heroin that made her vomit. The counselor advised her to call the following day at 8:01 a.m. to see if any beds had opened.

The sun was on the cusp of rising the next day as they readied for their mission. Before 8 a.m., Leigh Ann pulled out of the driveway, heading toward Prestera, ready to drop Taylor off immediately if beds were available. At 8:01 a.m., Taylor called. No beds were open. A crisis counselor urged her to consider intensive outpatient treatment instead. Her dope sickness, the counselor said, “wasn’t that bad.” Taylor was beside herself: How could they say she wasn’t bad enough?

Despite her distress, Taylor dialed down a list of nearly three dozen treatment centers. Time and again, she got either voicemail or receptionists saying they were full for the day. Try again tomorrow, they said.

“ALL the beds were full,” Taylor wrote to a CNN reporter. “The waiting list for the one rehab in H-town (ironic nickname huh) is extremely wrong. Most of the people on that list will die before they get the chance for treatment.”

Taylor Wilson
The house where Taylor died on the morning of Sept. 25, 2016, in Barboursville, W.Va.
Taylor Wilson
A letter written to the Wilson family from an employee at Prestera, one of the area’s biggest rehab facilities. Taylor tried to get medication-assisted treatment there, but the waiting list was too long.

A quick exchange at a stop sign

Her friends back at Marshall were well into their fall semester. But Taylor spent her third week in September waiting for her court appearance. After her testimony, she seemed herself, gushing to her mom about a cute detective. In that moment, Leigh Ann thought everything might be fine, so long as treatment arrived in time.

As the week drew to a close, Taylor planned on tailgating with her dad before the big Marshall homecoming game on Sept. 24. That afternoon, she asked her mom for her car keys.

“All the beds were full. … Most of the people on that list will die before they get the chance for treatment.”

Taylor Wilson

“Where are you going?” Leigh Ann asked.

“An N.A. meeting,” Taylor replied.

“It’s homecoming,” Leigh Ann said skeptically. “There are 25,000 people in town. There’s an N.A. meeting?”

“I’m positive,” Taylor said.

Leigh Ann wasn’t sure she believed her, but she wasn’t feeling well, so she didn’t put up a fight. Taylor headed out around 6 p.m. to pick up her friend John Stiltner. There was indeed an N.A. meeting, and they attended; John even texted Leigh Ann to let her know.

After the meeting, John and Taylor picked up some ice cream and cigarettes. Not ready to call it a night, they cranked the radio and, as old country music blared, cruised Huntington’s back streets. They headed east. Past the nickel plant, Taylor pulled over at a stop sign. They waited.

John had earlier noticed Taylor on the phone. He hadn’t thought much of it, until now a dealer approached Taylor’s car. It was a quick exchange: She pulled out $80, cash she’d gotten from selling pictures of herself to another man, and handed it over. The dealer gave her a half-gram of what looked like heroin.

“What the f— are you doing?” John asked.

“It’s not for me,” she replied.

John demanded to be taken home. Once Taylor dropped him off, he made a point of not texting her all night, hoping to teach her a lesson. “I was trying to get a point across: If you hang out in a barber’s shop, you’re going to get your hair cut,” John said.

Taylor Wilson
A decoration that a friend put on Taylor’s gravesite; her father brought it home to repair after it was damaged.

A father who could not bear to look

Night had fallen over Barboursville by the time Taylor walked into the house where Leigh Ann planned to stay overnight to care for an elderly retired Marine. Taylor snacked on some Kroger barbecue chicken on the blue couch in the lower level. Leigh Ann walked downstairs before 11 p.m. to find Taylor watching TV.

“You look tired,” Taylor told her mom. “Why don’t you go to bed?”

With her mom gone, Taylor pulled out the drugs she had bought. The early fall evening still felt like summer, so she stood outside in the cul-de-sac just after midnight, firing off texts. A neighbor last saw her outside around 1 a.m.

As Leigh Ann woke up on Sunday, she noticed the TV’s hum. It sounded like Taylor had left it on all night. So she went to check. Taylor was slumped on the blue couch, motionless. Her legs were curled under her body. Her right arm was slung over the back of the couch. Her face leaned against her knees.

Leigh Ann touched Taylor’s skin. It was cold as ice. She fell to her knees, hoping God would take her, too.

Her dad arrived, but he couldn’t bear to look at his little girl, as authorities rolled her body bag down the driveway.

The autopsy would later conclude that Taylor had died of an overdose of opioids — fentanyl, carfentanil, furanyl fentanyl, morphine, and hydrocodone. But no heroin.

The night Taylor overdosed, Leigh Ann sat in the lower level, curtains closed, and downed four beers. It was her worst relapse since her treatment for alcoholism. She hardly ate or slept for three days. On the fourth, she pulled it together to plan Taylor’s funeral and purchase cemetery plots for her daughter and herself.

Before she left home, Leigh Ann’s cellphone rang.

The voice on the other end, full of excitement, had good news. Taylor had cleared the Suboxone waiting list.

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  • Weary of reading these damn stories. Time for self-righteous legislators to fork over adequate funds for treatment, end the absurd & failed war on drugs, & deal with the real problems in the US.

  • I am so sorry for John and Leigh Anne’s loss. I have been in their shoes. By the grace of our Mighty God my daughter is still alive. I know the frustration of trying to get the help needed for addicts. Especially when the health insurance is a medical card. There needs to be a gigantic overhaul of the support system. If a person truly wants help but has no money and only a medical card, he/she is left out in the cold. My prayers go out to all addicts and their families….

  • I lost my son, Justin David, on January 7, 2017, at the age of 35. He would have turned 36 on March 19th. Taylor’s story sounds just like Justin’s story. They only keep you for 7 days at Highland in Charleston for detox. Then you have to try to get a bed for rehab at Prestera. Call every morning to try to get a bed. What a joke. Everyone wants them to get help but no one really wants to help them. Justin tried Suboxone. It cost his $300 for his office visits and $274 for his prescription. I helped him until I was financially in debt. He finally got insurance so his prescriptions were only $10. Justin did fine on the Suboxone for a while but then tried selling some of his Suboxone to help pay bills. Then he started selling them to buy Heroin. This disease is killing our young people. My son left a 14 year old daughter and a 2 year old son. My life will never be the same. I will miss him for the rest of my life.

  • I lost my 27 y/o son on 1/7/17. I can very much relate to this story. What needs to happen is long term facilities need to accept Medicaid. A 30 day rehab is useless. Suboxone didn’t work – he wouldn’t take it on the days he used. This is a nationwide epidemic and NOTHING is going to stop it now. Action should have been taken 10 years ago when heroin started being used widespread.
    My son was handsome, smart, loving, caring, supportive. Not all heroin addicts are “junkies”. None of them are! Stigma must be eradicated.
    We are losing an entire generation. How sad.

  • Easier access to treatment would greatly help with this epidemic we are faced with! It’s not going to stop until more treatment options are available! You have people complaining about saving addicts with Narcan, then they use again! Well, what choice do they have? Addiction and mental illness is not something you can just sit on a shelf and simply walk away from!

  • As the mom of an addict I dread the thought of losing my addicted son but know it could happen any day. LONG Term treatment is needed. Not are we only losing the current generation of young adults but the children of those addicted parents are at risk as well. I am very very sorry for your family.

  • My daughter was just discharged, after 45 days, from the inpatient facility she was at. She was doing great. The discharged her involuntarily because she was playing cards on the male side of the building in the early evening. She sought out the help. She wanted to be there. Then this happened. As far as I’m concerned there is no help for people with addiction. She is now discouraged once again. There was not even a warning given it was just an immediate discharge. If she dies from a heroin overdose I will hold this place partially responsible.

  • As a former addict and a lifelong friend of Taylors me sister Felicia was her best friend they were sisters… I’m blessed to be alive after I had been DOA I’m living hope their is a chance I’m no longer a recovering addict I’m recovered I’m done! Stories like this everyday kept me in that cycle of losing hope I pray it’s used to remember how sweet and funny and smart that girl was and I pray for her for her family for my sister… who lost her sister…. and the pain I indirectly caused trying to forget my own pain God Bless the lost souls of Huntington in Jesus name we pray Amen.

  • The woefully inadequate availability of addiction resources is a national disgrace. You don’t cure addiction with a one-time injection of Naloxone and most addicts don’t achieve a sustainable recovery without intensive intervention (medications like Suboxone plus supportive counseling). As addiction specialist Thomas Kimball writes (http://bit.ly/2mjOyj9) addiction is not a character disorder – it is a chronic brain disorder that requires specific, most likely life-long, treatment. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 52,404 lethal drug overdoses in 2015.” These are all of our kids. No one is immune from this epidemic as this very sad story about Taylor demonstrates. John and Leigh Ann, I know your hearts are broken, but sharing this powerful story should serve as an eye-opener and call to action for us all.

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