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After Losing Their Daughter, A Johnson Family Tries To Fight Opioids In Their Community

Greg Tatro holds a picture of his daughter, Jenna, who died of an opioid overdose in February. In the foreground are piles of sympathy cards he and his wife have received.
Amy Kolb Noyes
/
VPR
Greg Tatro holds a picture of his daughter, Jenna, who died of an opioid overdose in February. In the foreground are piles of sympathy cards he and his wife have received.

For six years, Greg and Dawn Tatro watched their daughter struggle with an opioid addiction. Then in February, Jenna Tatro died at age 26 in their home in Johnson. Now her parents hope to create a community-based recovery center to help others fight addiction.

Every night after dinner, they sit down in their living room and select a few envelopes to open from a mound of sympathy cards. Greg Tatro said the messages from friends and neighbors are helping them heal.

"We open up 10 cards or so," he said, gently opening an envelope, "and if we’re having a tough time, we might open up just five. But sometimes when you open up a card, there’s a letter attached to it. So it can take you quite a while to read the letter and actually let it sink in."

Some of those cards also have checks made out to their daughter Jenna’s memorial fund. The Tatros want to open a place in Johnson where other people suffering through addiction can get treatment. Greg Tatro said his family is in a unique position to help address opioid addiction in Lamoille County.

"I’ve been working through with Jenna fighting this disease for six years and then we lost her about a month ago," he said. "So, I’ve been on the streets. I’ve been involved in this. You know, we tried to help our daughter save her life but there was always a – it seems like it’s too easy, the drugs are always here."

Greg Tatro said Jenna's addiction began with hospital-prescribed painkillers – 30 days worth of opiates and a refill. Over six years Jenna went to at least 25 different treatment centers across the country, her parents said, but she often walked away after a couple of weeks.

A bag that has a note on it that has 'Jenna's things for mom' written on it.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
The Tatros received bag of Jenna's possessions from the rehab center she was staying at shortly before her death. Greg Tatro said it's still too hard to read much of what Jenna wrote in her notebooks.

"Her addiction was so strong, that she just couldn’t beat it. You know?" her father said. "And the last time, before she passed away, she was sober for 55 days and then made one call and four days later she was gone."

Greg Tatro said Jenna had a good heart and, even in the throes of her addiction, she wanted to help other people going through what she was going through. 

So in their daughter's memory, the Tatros have started an organization to establish a local recovery clinic — a place where people suffering with addictive disorders can go to address their physical health, mental health and overall well-being. They plan to call it Jenna’s House.

"I believe that this addiction, especially now that fentanyl [is] here, is a health crisis," said Greg Tatro. "And we have to treat it like a health crisis. Or we’re never gonna win this battle until we do."

That sentiment rings true with Daniel Franklin, the incoming executive director of Lamoille County’s North Central Vermont Recovery Center. The center offers recovery coaching and helps connect people with addictions to available resources.

Daniel Franklin, new executive director of the North Central Vermont Recovery Center, in Morrisville, standing.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
Daniel Franklin in the new executive director of the North Central Vermont Recovery Center, in Morrisville.

"I think the magic in this community is that we have an extraordinary group of people who really care deeply about this issue and are coming together," said Franklin. "Now it’s about coordinating and communicating and really working with people for whole-person, whole-life issues."

Treatment resources are scarce in north central Vermont — especially when it comes to residential care and medically assisted treatment.

Franklin said there are more than 300 people in Lamoille County who are on medication assisted treatment for opioid addiction. Many of them have to travel hours each day to an addiction treatment center to receive medications like methadone. But for many its easier to get a fix on the streets, Franklin said.

"The real drug dealers, that are coming from elsewhere, that don’t care about killing our kids," Franklin said, "they’ve recognized that we’re vulnerable and they’re moving into the community and selling drugs that are deadly."

Franklin is talking about fentanyl, an opioid far more powerful than heroin. Greg Tatro said fentanyl is what killed his daughter.

"We think the fentanyl was close to 100 percent," he said. "So, Jenna didn’t have a chance. You know, when she ingested that, then it was over."

The exterior of the closed St. John the Apostle Church, in Johnson, Vt.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
The Tatros hope to purchase the closed St. John the Apostle Church, in Johnson, from the Catholic diocese.

According to the Vermont Department of Heath, fentanyl was a factor in three out of four opioid-related accidental and undetermined deaths last year. To combat that, the Tatros have begun putting together an advisory board, bringing law enforcement, health care providers, addiction experts and politicians to the table.

They've also made an offer on a building for Jenna’s House. It’s a former church in Johnson, being sold by the Catholic diocese.

"Our family went to mass there, and Dawn and I were married there," Greg Tatro said. "Our children were baptized there. And we just think it’s a great spot to carry on Jenna’s dream."

He said an offer to buy the church building is on the table. However the church and the local federally qualified health care organization that would run the clinic have yet to come to an agreement.

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