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“Maybe it will save one life:” Mapping lost loved ones of the opioid epidemic

MILWAUKEE -- Today, like every day, an estimated 91 Americans will die from an opioid overdose. It's not just teenagers with easy access -- it's moms, dads, kids, even grandparents. The drugs that kill many are prescriptions -- painkillers doctors dole out after an injury. It’s happening in big cities and small farming communities.

In 2014, two million Americans were hooked on prescription opioids like percocet, oxycodone and vicodin and that number has only grown. Three out of four of those addicts will turn to the cheaper and deadlier street drug heroin.

Left behind are parents, sisters and brothers -- struggling to understand how a deadly addiction began with a simple prescription. How did they miss the signs of addiction? Were they too lenient, maybe too strict?

They ask questions, knowing the answers will never come.

It was nine years ago when Jeremiah Lindemann lost his little brother JT to opioid abuse.

"When he passed away, I really shut down. I didn’t want to talk much about it,” Lindemann said.

JT was a good kid and a great baseball player.

“He could light up a room with a smile.  A very charming personality. I was jealous of some of the gifts he had. Just naturally talented as an athlete growing up and being able to hit real home runs with baseball,” said Lindemann.

But the promising athlete was thrown a deadly curve ball -- an addiction to prescription drugs that were easy to get.

“Being able to go to emergency rooms and saying he was in pain, it was pretty easy,” Lindemann explained.

Jeremiah Lindemann

For years, Lindemann grieved for his brother privately. But the death gnawed at him, and like so many others, questions raced through his mind: how did this happen and how many other lives had been taken?

To help find answers and perhaps numb the pain, he turned to what he knows best.

“I work for Esri, [a] software company who does mapping, so everyday I’m working with maps,” he said.

Lindemann creates all sorts of maps for all sorts of reasons. Most are for the government.

The Lost Loved Ones map is a tribute to the victims of the opioid epidemic and a place for the friends and family members left behind to share their stories.

Click on any button, and you’ll find the faces of the epidemic and the heart-wrenching stories of loss.

The first button posted on Lindemann’s map sits over the small town of Laramie, Wyoming.  Click and you’ll get the story of JT’s life and Lindemann’s loss.

“JT was 22 when he passed,” Lindemann said.

Lindemann took to social media, sharing his story and his map with the world.  One by one, more buttons appeared, each a tribute to a victim of this epidemic.

In Colorado, adventurer Devon Miller became addicted to prescription medications after an accident left him with a torn meniscus, and his mother a broken heart.

“Don’t give up on them,” his mother, Jackie Freisen, said. “Get very involved.”

Freisen posted on Lindemann’s map to honor Devon and to warn doctors who freely prescribe opioids.

“I think the pharmaceutical needs to be held accountable and I think the doctors need to be held accountable,” she said.

She says it was too easy for her son to get oxycontin. Doctors gave him 180 pills every month.

“How is it that anyone needs that and that’s a doctor's prescription every month?” she asked.

The stories behind the pictures on Lindemann’s map are as different as the faces. The reasons loved ones are posting them are just as varied.

Annie Colloway found the map, read the tributes and added her button over Richmond, Virginia. She said it was the least she could do to honor her daughter.

“She had a lot of female problems and minor surgeries and was given pain medicine,” Colloway said. “And from there the addiction took hold.”

And it didn’t let go.

The addiction started with the prescriptions, but April’s life ended when she took pure fentanyl, the same drug that killed Prince.

Carfentanil

Mostly prescribed for cancer patients, fentanyl is 50 times more potent then heroin. Both have become a favorite of the Mexican drug cartels that are making millions off of America’s opioid addiction.

It’s also taking the lives of people like Emily Hastings.

“Always had a smile on her face and could just brighten up the room,” said her sister, Holly Hastings.

Hastings chooses to remember her sister Emily as the girl with the captivating smile and the big personality.

“I don’t want her to go down as, you know, the criminal junkie dead in an alley. I want people to know the Emily I knew,” Hastings said.

Searching for answers and support like so many families in America, the Hastings found Lindemann’s map and a sense of community.

Emily now one of the growing number of people whose stories are told here, by brothers and sisters and moms and dads, some angry, others anguished, all grieving -- all victims of America’s opioid epidemic.