Chapter 1: A Mother’s Purpose
Nikki Arnold-Strunck lost her son, Brendan, to an overdose when he was 24-years-old. Nikki now devotes her life to sharing their story in hopes of curbing the opioid epidemic in and around her community of Richmond, Kentucky.
January 2, 2017 was a day that would change Nikki Arnold-Strunck’s life forever.
On Christmas Day, her son, Brendan Strunck, was released from what would be his last stay in jail. Before that Nikki had stopped celebrating holidays.
“He got out of jail on December 25, 2016,” Nikki said. “And I’m glad I got to spend that holiday with him because that’s the last one we spent together.”
The week after he was released from jail was a week Nikki will cherish forever. “That was the old Brendan, I got to see him that last week that he was alive,” Nikki said.
One week later Nikki came downstairs in the morning after going to bed relieved, thinking Brendan had turned a corner and was going to get the help he needed. Brendan was set to go into a recovery center he had visited and chosen himself after the holidays, on January 4.
The morning of January 2, she noticed some of Brendan’s regular relapse characteristics. Characteristics that she had become hyper aware of. The TV was left on overnight, the lights were on, and he was no where to be found. Nikki assumed Brendan had left with someone sometime overnight to go get high but then she noticed the light was on under the bathroom door.
Nikki’s worst fear had come true when she found Brendan had overdosed in the downstairs bathroom of their home sometime during the night.
“We sat on this couch three-days before he died and I said to him, ‘Brendan you know if you don’t do something different you’re going to end up dead or in jail the rest of your life,” Nikki said. “And he said ‘I know mom, I know that.”
Brendan’s New Purpose
Now Nikki devotes her life to sharing their story in hopes of helping whoever she can. She refuses to let Brendan die in vain and without a purpose.
She spends her free time travelling to recovery centers, jails and schools to share their story.
Wherever Nikki travels for her talks, she plays the recording of the 911 call of when she found Brendan overdosed.
“I’d love to say it’s been three years and that phone call doesn’t effect me but it does,” Nikki said. “It takes me back to being outside, in the yard, in the cold, with no coat on, it makes all those things come back very vividly.”
Beginning of the End
Brendan Strunck had what would be considered a normal childhood. He played football, was a high achieving student and was well liked by everyone. Still Nikki was always scared he would fall into a life she knows all too well.
“I think for me, that was one of the biggest things I worried about when I was pregnant just because my dad was an addict and Brendan’s dad was an alcoholic,” Nikki said. “That was always my biggest fear, that if I had a child they would end up addicted.”
When Brendan was 13-years-old Nikki got a call from the middle school he attended in Richmond, Kentucky saying he had gotten into trouble. She was expecting to go pick him up from school when she was told he was in jail. This is when Nikki’s worst fear began coming into light.
After that day, Brendan and Nikki’s life-long battle began. Brendan quickly transitioned from using marijuana to using heroin.
Nikki tried to get ahead of the problem by moving to Cincinnati to get away from the negative influences in Brendan’s life.
When the move to Cincinnati did not work and the problem continued to get worse, Nikki thought she could fix it by moving back to Richmond, Kentucky. Unknown to her at the time, she was moving Brendan to the sixth worst county in Kentucky for opioid use.
“I didn’t know how to help him get out of it because I thought for a lot of years I can fix everything,” Nikki said. “I can fix everything, I’m his mom, it’s my job, I can fix it, I can make it better, and then I realized that I couldn’t and that was hard.”
The Toll Addiction Takes
Throughout Brendan’s addiction struggle, he overdosed five different times. “In 2015 he overdosed twice in a week,” Nikki said. “He overdosed on a Monday and on a Friday.”
Nikki also tried everything in her power to prevent Brendan from getting a felony but at 18-years, 2-days and 3-weeks old Brendan was arrested and charged with his first felony.
About ten years after his first drug related run in with the law, Brendan had already been in 11 different recovery centers.
“At 24 he was tired of everything,” said Nikki. “It was a job to stay high at that point.”
From day one Brendan’s struggle with addiction effected Nikki. “It really made me feel hopeless and really helpless as a mom,” said Nikki.
Although Nikki tries to find the positive in her loss in order to help others, she feels the effects of losing her only child everyday and will continue to face the consequences of a choice she did not make.
“I’m living with those consequences everyday,” said Nikki. “I’ll never have a grandchild, I’ll never get to see him married, I’ll never get to have a mother son dance, I’ll never get to do all those things that if he was sober we would’ve gotten to do and that’s really frustrating.”
Life After Brendan
Three and a half years later, Nikki still lives in the same house where Brendan died. She says it is comforting because of all the good memories they have in that house from the week before Brendan died.
“Especially when he first died and I was really early in my grief,” Nikki said. “Being able to go in that bathroom and sit where he was and just be able to grieve there in the last place he was, helped me a lot.”
Mental health has always been an obstacle in Nikki’s life. She has suffered from anxiety and depression her whole life and falling back into that hole has always been a potential risk. But through all of the tribulations she has faced, she has developed healthy coping skills to help get her through.
“If I’m having a bad day, I don’t have to stay in that,” Nikki said. “I can feel it, which has been huge, because any other time in my life I would have stuffed my pain and would not have dealt with it. But it’s allowed me to be able to feel my pain, process it, know that it’s only going to be here for a little while, and it’ll go away again. But in the back of my mind I always know its going to come back at some point but all I have to do is get through it and I think that really helped me mentally.”
“There are some things I can’t control,” said Nikki. “I can’t control that he’s dead, I can’t control that he’s gone, I can’t control how long I’m going to live until I get to go and be with him, but I do get to control how my pain effects me. I have power over that.”
Chapter 2: On the Front Lines
On the west side of Louisville, Kentucky members of the Louisville Fire Department are accustomed to running daily overdose calls.
Firefighters in Louisville, Kentucky are no strangers to the opioid epidemic due to the city’s close proximity to Ohio, one of the hardest hit states in the country. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse there were 989 opioid-related deaths in Kentucky alone in 2016.
On the west side of Louisville, emergency personnel run multiple overdose calls per day. As of April 22, 2019 emergency personnel have run 127 non-fatal opioid related calls and six fatal opioid related calls for the month according to the Louisville Metro Emergency Services. This works out to about five overdose calls per day in the Louisville Metro Area.
According to Major Wes Gibson, a Battalion Chief with the Louisville Fire Department, fire department personnel typically get to overdose calls before Emergency Medical Services so they are the ones administering Narcan, an overdose reversing drug.
Captain Michael Quinn has been with the LFD for six years. He works out of fire station four on the west end where he says they run one or more overdose calls per day.
“Initially when we first started making them it was like wow, there’s overdoses all over the place,” Captain Quinn said. “But being in the fire department you become kind of immune to the shock factor so now when I hear those it’s like oh there’s another overdose because it has happened and continues to happen so often.”
According to LMES, there was a spike in overdose calls in May of 2018 with 275 non-fatal calls and six fatal calls.
The Road Ahead
Things may be looking up for the city. The amount of opioid overdoses has decreased in recent years due to various efforts by people in the community, public safety and city lawmakers.
Most opioid related calls are also non-fatal. From January 8, 2018 to April 22, 2019 only 3 percent of all opioid related calls were fatal in nature according to LMES.
Chapter 3: What's Next
Nikki Arnold-Strunck will continue helping people by sharing Brendan's story around Kentucky for as long as the opioid epidemic continues.
From 2016 to 2017 there was an 11 percent increase in opioid fatalities in Kentucky, but Kentucky is considered in the stable category for heroin overdose death rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The loss of her only son is something Nikki will hold with her for her entire life. As she copes and the epidemic continues, Nikki will continue to travel around speaking to schools, recovery centers and everywhere else she can to educate people using her story.
One of the reasons Nikki feels it is important to speak in schools is because Brendan was in middle school when he first began using drugs.
In 2018, 51 percent of teens in a Pew Research Center survey said drug addiction is a major problem among their peers.
Nikki shares her story because she wants people to know how their actions will have a negative effect everyone around them, especially those closest to them.
“I wake up everyday and I live with a consequence of a choice I did not make,” Nikki said. “I did not choose to wake up everyday and deal with the emptiness and the grief that I have because my only child is gone.”
- "Federal prosecutors charged 60 physicians and pharmacists with illegally handing out opioid prescriptions in what they say is the biggest crackdown of its kind in U.S. history." Click here to read the full story from the Cincinnati Enquirer.
- "Kentucky is taking part in a new national effort to combat opioid addiction and overdose deaths, thanks to an $87 million grant from the federal government." Click here to read the full story from the Courier-Journal.
- "To assist the state’s hospitals in the opioid epidemic battle, the Kentucky Hospital Association (KHA) is partnering with the Cabinet for Health and Family Services as part of the Kentucky Opioid Response Effort (KORE) to launch the Kentucky Statewide Opioid Stewardship (KY SOS) program." Click here to read the full story from the University of Kentucky Health Care.
Resources for Addicts and Families
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- Center on Addiction
- A 12-Step Program for Families & Friends of Addicts
- Women Only Rehab Centers
- Parents of Addicted Loved Ones
- Addiction Resource Center
- People Advocating Recovery
- Maternal Opiate Substance Treatment Program
- Kentucky Addiction Centers
- Find Help Now KY