KELO: SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – It’s not accidents, it’s not cancer, and it’s not gun violence: drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for people under the age of 50.
Here in the Sioux Falls area alone, 13 people have died of overdoses so far this year. A majority of those were fentanyl related. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is rampantly laced in black-market drugs.
But behind all these statistics are personal stories of addiction and loss. One such death has touched KELOLAND News in a personal way. Long-time news anchor Angela Kennecke lost her 21-year-old daughter this spring to fentanyl poisoning. Now that Angela has returned to work, she’s sharing Emily’s story to try to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction and put out a call to action.
Angela Kennecke: “I would like to erase the stigma surrounding addiction and surrounding the kind of problems my daughter had. I was also in the dark about a lot of those problems. I think addicts are really, really good at hiding things. You don’t want your mom to know what you’re really doing—especially if you’re ashamed of it; especially if it’s something that’s dangerous.
There weren’t the glaring signs you see with people. It was more her physical appearance had started to change. She’d gotten skinnier, her eyes more hollowed out and it seemed like she was on something every time I saw her.
So I hired an interventionist, checked her into a treatment center, ran the insurance through and we even got committal papers if she wouldn’t go to treatment.
It’s a complicated problem. You can’t just pull yourself up by your boot straps and be better and just quit one day. Someone described addiction to me as if you’re falling off a high-rise building. You can’t stop yourself.
I was worried. I was worried about her. And I was taking action. I just didn’t get there in time.
I got a frantic call from her dad, saying, ‘I think Emily’s O.D. You need to get over here right now.’ I can’t even describe to you what it’s like to hear those words.
I got in and the paramedics were working on my daughter. And I asked, ‘are there any vitals?’ And they told me, ‘We’re breathing for her.’ And then I just got down on my knees in front of all the law enforcement, paramedics and firefighters and just started praying. But I know now it was too late. By the time paramedics got to her, it was too late. And then after everybody cleared out, I just lay down with my daughter and told her how much I loved her. That day will be forever seared in my brain. I don’t even know how I can talk about it calmly other than I’ve had a lot of time to think about it and reflect on it.
The best way I know how to cope with my grief is to share my story. I’ve asked so many people over the years to share their stories. I’ve talked to a lot of grieving parents. Now I know what it feels like. And instead of it always being the other person out there who this happened to–this happened to me. And instead of asking myself ‘why me?’ I’ve asked myself, ‘why not me?’ This could happen to anybody.
But I’m lucky, because the last day I saw her alive was on Mother’s Day and my last words to her were “I love you.” And her last words to me were ‘I love you;’ so in that way, I’m lucky.”
Angela Kennecke: I thought she was the most amazing kid in the world. I was so proud of her. First of all, she was intellectually gifted. She was artistically gifted. She was athletically gifted. And I used to always tell her with so many gifts comes great responsibility to the world, to bring those gifts to the world.
Perhaps it’s no surprise since her birth was such a public thing because I’m in the public eye that her death is now such a public thing too. I have to embrace that. I really can’t hide from that. So, I think it’s best if I just tell my story and let everyone out there know what happened to my daughter. Because I really believe it could happen to anyone’s daughter. It can happen in anyone’s family. And it starts with addiction.
It was soon pretty evident that the whole drug culture was pretty attractive to her and I was really concerned as a mom. It’s hard to know what to do. I really feel for everyone out there who has a child that has an addiction problem, because you don’t know where to turn. And there’s so much stigma surrounding this, it’s hard to even talk to other people about it.
Everything in my instincts told me something is seriously wrong here. And we would see Emily quite a lot. She wasn’t living with us. She was 21 years old. But the more time I spent around her before her death, the more alarm bells went off in my head. And so we hired an interventionist to get her into treatment.
We met on a Saturday and the intervention was planned for the following Saturday, and my daughter died on a Wednesday. We didn’t get that chance. We didn’t get that chance to get her into real treatment, to get her real help. And then when I found out what she’d been doing–the cause–it was unbelievable to me. The fact that my daughter would be using heroin and needles—my beautiful daughter who was very privileged; had every opportunity in life to have a great life–had gone down this road. It was shocking to me.
I consider myself a wordsmith. I write for a living–every day. But there are not words to describe the devastation I feel at the loss of my daughter. There is nothing that can even come close to describe the grief and the sorrow, the pain. And all of the loss–what she could have been–what if?
And as a mom–I have a hole in my heart that will always be there. It is never going to heal. I have other children that I love. I have a husband that I love. But nothing and nobody can replace the loss of my oldest child. And she was only 21.
According to the autopsy report, Emily had six times what would be considered a therapeutic dose of fentanyl for the largest man. And she was just a small young woman. She didn’t stand a chance. That fentanyl killed her almost instantly after she injected it.
Her chair sits empty at the kitchen table. That’s when it really hurts, when I look across the table and there’s her chair and she’s not there. She’s never coming back–the permanency of it. I was robbed of my daughter. I was simply robbed.
No matter what happens to them, no matter who’s charged or if anybody is charged directly with her death, while they say they know who she got it from, nothing will ever bring her back.
She was a beautiful girl and she deserved to live. And she deserved a chance to get help. And she engaged in risky behavior. But she didn’t deserve to die.
I’ve set up a fund called “Emily’s Hope” because I never gave up hope on my daughter. And I want her life and her tragic death to at least give someone else hope.
By telling Emily’s story and my story of loss and pain and suffering. I’m opening myself up. I’m being vulnerable to our audience in a way I’ve never been before. But I do feel it’s super important I do that. Because if just one person hears me. If just one person does one thing to save a life, then I don’t care about a million naysayer’s or people who don’t understand. I just care about that one mother that I can stop from experiencing the pain that I have.
Angela and her family have set up a charity in Emily’s honor called Emily’s Hope to help more people struggling with addiction to get the help they need.