Survivor Story: Jennifer Powell
Sisters are as close as relationships come, and Jennifer Powell and her sister Jolene Bowman were no different.
“She was my little sister,” Powell said. “She was awesome.”
Jolene, a 38-year-old mother of two, met some new friends when she and her husband were going through a separation in her early thirties, Powell said. Jolene began experimenting with recreational drugs when she would get together with these friends. But eventually she turned to pain pills as addiction took hold.
She hated the addiction and had committed herself to recovery. For 16 months, Powell said her sister maintained her sobriety. But the hope for a better life for her sister came to a crashing halt on July 1, 2015 when she got a call that Jolene had overdosed.
“Not being an addict, it is difficult for me to understand exactly what she was thinking, her struggle with trying to rationalize after being clean for so long,” Powell said. “Based on the conversation with her dealer, she thought she was getting something like a Percocet. Instead she got a counterfeit pill pressed in the form of oxy or something of that sort.
The pill Jolene took contained a fatal dose of fentanyl, Powell said.
“She worked with my daughter-in-law,” Powell said. “So I got the call from my very-hysterical daughter-in-law and I honestly remember — I live about 10 minutes from where it happened — driving to where she was oblivious to the fact that she could possibly be dead.”
Paramedics tried to revive Jolene, but it was too late. She was gone.
“I believe everyone must be responsible for their own actions,” Powell said. “If you break the law, you break the law. Unfortunately, her punishment was death, and I think that’s a little severe. But she wasn’t a failure. She wasn’t unworthy. She wasn’t her last decision. She was more than that, and so is everyone else who is in this predicament. This is a sickness, a disease. And we have to open our eyes and see that she was just like everyone else. She had struggles. She had choices. And she had a sickness. And a lot of us have it.”
Jolene’s death was investigated by the Versailles Police Department after they were trained by the U.S. Attorney’s Office about pursuing federal prosecution against traffickers whose drugs lead to overdose. As a result, both Jolene’s dealer and his supplier are awaiting sentencing for their responsibility in her death. The efforts made into bringing her sister justice encouraged Powell to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office Heroin Education Action Team.
“Prior to this, anytime you heard of a drug overdose, it was always treated as a medical emergency, and basically the victim who overdosed received nothing,” Powell said. “They were written off as a moral failure, or someone who was completely wrong and they asked for it. And that stigma can’t be placed on that person when they’re not here to take it, so it is placed on the shoulders of the family.
“It was incredibly enlightening for us to learn about this initiative,” Powell continued. “It gives us the sense that maybe my sister was actually worthy. She was a person, and she deserves the same respect as anyone else within our community. It gives me a sense of faith in the law that there is no picking and choosing – it’s for everyone, and that makes me feel better as a person.”
The USA HEAT team was formed in 2015 and sends family members who have lost someone to overdose out to schools, churches and community groups to share their stories, said Kerry Harvey, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky. The team was established as Harvey’s office was working more and more overdose cases and building relationships with survivors.
“For me, personally, I have spent time with these folks, and I just have so much compassion for the pain they’re going through,” Harvey said. “I also very quickly realized these are people who, in many cases, have fought with their child through this addiction for years and have learned so much about the flaws in the system. They also can talk about the positive aspects they have learned about so many things that only they can know — only people who have been through this can know. It occurred to us that this is a tremendous resource we could use to try to prevent other people from going through this.”
Their message is that this can happen to anybody, Harvey said. This epidemic is not targeting one gender, racial, ethnic or socio-economic group.
“After spending time with these folks, I realize I didn’t do any better job raising my kids than they did, I was just a little more fortunate,” Harvey continued. “Their message is so powerful.”
Speaking to groups about her sister’s death was tough at first, but now she said it allows her to hold her head up in her community.
“It’s overwhelming,” Powell said. “There is so much silence when it comes to addiction and overdose. There is so much perceived shame and embarrassment. But when we open up and share our stories, it’s awesome and terrible at the same time how many people are going through the exact same thing. It gives us a sense that we are not alone, and that we can stand up and speak out. And the louder we get, the less power these dealers and suppliers have.”
Powell hopes to continue to help fight against the misinformation and lack of education that is abundant about drugs and hopefully prevent other families from enduring what her family has endured. She also has a message for Kentucky’s law enforcement.
“Here’s the one thing I have learned over the past year,” she said. “So many different locks have to be unlocked to stop this. But law enforcement is one of the biggest keys. And I truly believe that. We can’t do this — the families, communities. We look to law enforcement for protection. And it might seem a little crazy and sometimes kind of unbearable, but we have faith and know they are working as hard as they can. They are the only key.
“I think if we all work together and all be one entity, we can get this under control,” she continued. “But we can’t do it without them. I know it’s a large load to carry, but they should know that communities are rallying behind our officers, and we have complete faith in them.”