La. mother of overdose victim leads crusade to fight addiction

HOUMA, La. — When Renee Dryden Bertinot’s 31-year-old daughter Sarah Beth Pellegrin died from a heroin overdose last year, she decided to do something about it.

“After I lost Sarah, my heart was so broken and I started meeting other moms who lost their children as well,” Bertinot said. “I couldn’t stay silent. I couldn’t just let Sarah pass away and let that be the end of it.”

The tragedy of Pellegrin’s death led to the creation of the organization S.A.R.A.H., or Seeking Action Raising Awareness and Hope.

The group organized a candlelight vigil Saturday (Aug. 31) — on International Overdose Awareness Day — in front of the Terrebonne Parish Courthouse to bring awareness of addiction and honor those who lost their battle to it.

Bertinot’s friend, Michelle Eschete, who helped organize the event, said one of the S.A.R.A.H.’s goals is to eradicate the stigma associated with addiction.

“It is our dream, our mission and desire to continue to bring awareness and hope while seeking action to remove the stigma of addiction for the addicts and their families,” Eschete said. “To open the lines of communication without placing shame or blame. The bitter reality of addiction is that it doesn’t just disappear. It still exists after recovery, after rehabilitation and even after death. It still lingers.”

Following her daughter’s death, Bertinot also joined the FED UP! Coalition, which was formed in 2012 to combat the opioid epidemic.

In 2017, Terrebonne had 53 fatal overdoses and 33 last year, officials said. In 2018, 30,000 Americans died from synthetic opioid overdoses.

“We just had three back-to-back overdoses because there is a bad batch of drugs out there,” Bertinot said. “The drugs themselves are poison, but they’re poisoning the poison with fentanyl. We want to get the community involved in different aspects of getting the word out or ending the silence of addiction. We can’t just remain silent and pretend it’s not happening. It’s killing people left and right.”

Addiction doesn’t discriminate or care if you are rich, poor, educated or non-educated, said Susan Julius, a physician who struggled with drugs.

After getting arrested in New Orleans for marijuana possession during a traffic stop, things only got worse for Julius when narcotics agents raided her clinic.

“While I was burying my mom the DEA was watching me,” she said. “When I came home my office was raided by 10 DEA agents. They told me if I didn’t open the door to my apartment they would batter it down. They were riffling through the things that I brought home from my mother’s house. I was terrified, I was shaken. I saw my whole life go up in front of my eyes. I’m a doctor, I’m not supposed to be getting into trouble. This is crazy.”

After getting slapped with 31 felony charges, Julius realized she had a problem and entered rehab for several months.

As the medical director of Townsend Treatment Centers in Baton Rouge, Julius said she now helps others battle their addictions.

“I tell my story to my patients every day,” she said. “I get on TV and tell people that I have this illness. If I can’t tell you that I have this illness, how can I expect my patients to tell people? We’re not bad people. We’re people with an illness, just like diabetes. We have to learn how to manage it.”

The event also featured guest speakers, live music and a Cajun cook-off featuring several teams including Terrebonne sheriff’s candidates Mike Solet, Tim Soignet, Terry Daigre and Blayne “Bubba” Bergeron.

Several families somberly took to the stage and announced the names of their own loved ones who died from overdoses.

One of them was Joe Vidrine, who said he lost two children to drug overdoses.

“I’m not up here to get a tear from anybody,” Vidrine said to the crowd. “I just want to share what I’ve been through and experienced. I will tell you as a parent, I did make mistakes. If you think you’re an expert parent, you’re not. Keep loving your kids and try to intervene in their lives. Opioid addiction is like a revolver in a game of Russian roulette. It’s a horrible thing.”

By Kerry Minor

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