Saturday, December 20, 2014

Biggest Public Health Crisis

Woonsocket woman who saved friend dies from overdose

Published: December 19, 2014 11:15 PM

By Lynn Arditi

Journal Staff Writer
Veronica Cherwinski, 32, who was imprisoned after calling 911 to help rescue a friend who was overdosing, was notified in February that the R.I. attorney general was revisiting the felony drug charge against her that initially had been dismissed.

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WOONSOCKET — Veronica Cherwinski crouched over her friend on the floor, holding up her head so she wouldn’t choke.

Her friend was overdosing on heroin.

But rescue workers arrived in time to give her a shot of Narcan, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose — and the woman lived.

Now, Cherwinski is dead, apparently from a drug overdose. She was 33.

Her fiancé came home after work on Nov. 7 and found her on his living room couch. The police who responded to his 911 call told him there was a needle in her arm.

In both cases, the women had overdosed within two weeks of being released from prison — a period when lowered drug tolerance, studies show, make people at an exponentially higher risk of dying of an overdose.

More than 200 people in Rhode Island have died of accidental drug overdoses so far this year, according to the state medical examiner’s office. Nearly 60 percent of those who died during the first four months of this year had spent time in prison.

For months now, funding and logistical hurdles have delayed efforts to make Narcan available, for free, to at-risk inmates when they leave the Adult Correctional Institutions. And it may happen as early as next week.

It’s not soon enough, though, for Dr. Josiah D. “Jody” Rich, director of The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at The Miriam Hospital, Providence.

“This is the biggest public health crisis killing more people than homicides, suicide and motor vehicle accidents combined,” Rich said. “If Veronica’s death can stimulate this program to happen quicker and make it a standard practice here, and hopefully across the nation, it wouldn’t have been in vain. But right now it’s just a senseless tragedy.”

One evening last week, Steven Bokoski leaned back in a recliner in his living room just a few feet from the worn couch where Cherwinski died.

A pile of her clean laundry filled an armchair. A red high-heeled pump lay tipped on its side near the front door.

He is 66 and works in computers for the state. She liked to call him her fiancé, he said, though they had no formal plans to marry.

They met in 2010 when she moved into the upstairs apartment. She’d painted the walls of her living room rose-pink and covered them with posters that read “I (heart) Jesus” and “4GVN.”

She was a 4-foot-11 spark-plug who liked to dress up in colorful clothes and makeup and take selfies with her cellphone that she’d text to Bokoski.

“When she was sober,” Bokoski said, “she was a really pleasant person.’’

She used to work as a nursing assistant, caring for patients in nursing homes. More recently, she made money dancing at strip clubs. She started out using marijuana and cocaine, and in 2012 moved on to heroin.

She was in and out of prison. Disorderly conduct. Loitering for indecent purpose. Shoplifting. Drug possession.

During her time in prison, Bokoski said, she’d get clean and go on medication and she became her best self.

But then she’d “start acting up” and lash out at him, he said, punching or even biting. She’d try to hurt herself by banging her head against the wall.

Cherwinski had lost a boyfriend to an overdose in her apartment in May 2013. She’d gone out to the store and when she came back he was dead.

If she’d been there, she’d say later, she could have saved him. She’d taken an overdose prevention training class known as PONI (Preventing Overdose and Naloxone Intervention) where she’d watched an instructional video and a demonstration about how to use Narcan.

So when her friend, who had just been released from the ACI, started to overdose at her apartment the following August, Cherwinski banged on Bokoski’s door and shouted for him to call 911.

The police spotted drug paraphernalia in the apartment and arrested Cherwinski on a felony drug charge. A judge later dismissed the drug charge under Rhode Island’s Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Act. But she served 30 days at the ACI on a probation violation. (Her story appeared as part of last April’s ‘Overdosed’ series in The Providence Journal.)

Rich says he made several referrals for Cherwinski for mental health and substance abuse treatment. He’s not sure if she ever followed up.

Bokoski says he, too, tried to persuade her to get help. “A lot of times she was just in denial, like a lot of mentally ill people,’’ he said. “They don’t think they need treatment.”

And lately, he said, her outbursts were growing more frequent. If he didn’t give her money when she asked or rides, he said, she’d get furious.

One time, he said, she took his computer speaker, hit herself in the face, and then called the police and told them Bokoski hit her.

So he decided to get a restraining order against her, just in case. But as soon as she calmed down, he said, he let her back in.

Early one morning last September, a former friend of Cherwinksi’s came by the house banging on Bokoski’s front door shouting and demanding to be let in. He heard a window break and called the police.

While searching for the intruder a police officer went into the basement garage and saw Cherwinski hiding underneath Bokoski’s car, her legs poking out.

Police arrested Cherwinksi and charged her with violating the restraining order and she spent the next 30 days at the ACI.

She spent two days at Amos House, texting pictures of herself to Bokoski smiling next to a new friend. Then she was back at his house.

He points to the worn couch where he found her, head tilted back, eyes opened, left arm hanging over the side. Above her head, was his mother’s collection of porcelain angels.

She was gone.

On Twitter: @LynnArditi