Man in recovery: Overdose death of fiancee ‘saved my life’

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories by Pennsylvania print, digital and broadcast news organizations on the opioid crisis in the state.

MIDDLETOWN — Two weeks after Valentine’s Day, the wooden table in Wendy Loranzo’s dining room in Middletown still was covered with large bouquets of red roses.

Next to the vases of red roses in full bloom were placed framed copies of a large color photo of Wendy’s daughter, Elizabeth.

The photo has become a familiar image in the past year all over the region, to thousands of people who never knew Elizabeth Loranzo when she was alive.

Elizabeth Loranzo died on March 19, 2017, of an accidental overdose from taking heroin laced with fentanyl.

Her death led Wendy Loranzo to create The Elizabeth Loranzo iCare Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides support, financial and otherwise, to people who are battling addiction, depression, anxiety, domestic abuse and alcoholism.

March 19, 2017, is also the last time that Elizabeth Loranzo’s fiance, Kyle Cox, used heroin.

Cox is raising Carson, the now almost 2-year-old boy he had with Elizabeth. Wendy, Carson’s grandmother, is a constant source of support. Cox is working full-time, going to and leading recovery classes every week, and this summer is starting at Harrisburg Area Community College to become a probation officer.

“It’s a shame to say, but her death definitely saved my life,” Cox says today.

Cox and Elizabeth met in rehab at Roxbury in Shippensburg.

“She had met a new boyfriend in recovery, which is rule No. 1 — don’t do that,” Wendy Loranzo told an audience at Penn State Harrisburg during a recent public forum on the opioid epidemic.

But in retrospect, Wendy said meeting Kyle got Elizabeth out of a bad relationship with an abusive man who Wendy calls a “thug.”

Elizabeth’s insurance only allowed her to stay in rehab for 17 days, her mother recalled. “Me not knowing anything about heroin or its addiction — I thought she was cured,” Wendy said.

It seemed that way for a while, for both Kyle and Elizabeth. They stayed together after Roxbury, and Elizabeth became pregnant.

Kyle said he was clean until he went to the dentist and was given a prescription for Vicodin, an opioid used to relieve pain. He took the prescription and almost immediately. “I was back out there on heroin.”

The couple started using heroin together again and one day got “a real bad batch” from a dealer, Cox said.

Cox passed out and awoke about two or three hours later to find Elizabeth lying dead next to him. Her death was an accident due to acute fentanyl toxicity, based on results of an autopsy.

Cox today considers himself lucky to be alive.

“I feel guilty about it,” he said of Elizabeth’s death. “I was in drug and alcohol counseling when Liz was pregnant with my son, and right before she had Carson, I gave up everything. I said, ‘This kid is gonna keep me clean.’ I love my son, I’ve always been there for my son, I’ve always been a good dad. But not even my son could keep me clean. That’s how strong this drug is.”

It’s hard for someone who has never used heroin to understand the hold it has on people.

People using heroin think they can keep it under control. That changes very quickly, before they even know it, Cox said. Before long you’re getting sick because you aren’t using it. You’re no longer using heroin to get high, but to be normal and to function. That’s why it’s so hard to quit.

Addicts hear of the overdoses but think it can never happen to them, Cox said.

“I watched something just kill my best friend, the person I loved forever,” he said. “She was lying there dead from something we just did. I’ve got to explain that to my son.”

Elizabeth’s death shocked Kyle, but a drug named Vivotrol made his recovery possible.

Vivotrol is the brand name for naltrexone, a non-narcotic medication released in 2006. Addicts got a shot of Vivotrol once a month. Wendy got Kyle on Vivotrol within a few weeks of Elizabeth dying.

To Cox, Vivotraol is a wonder drug.

“I honestly don’t think I would have made it through her death and everything else on top of it sober without Vivotrol,” he said. Vivotrol blocks the transmitters in your brain into which the heroin goes.

“Vivotrol kept my cravings away for heroin. I didn’t even think of heroin,” he said. “Having that shot, while I built my recovery, I learned the things I love again. I’m heavy into the gym. I go every day not just for my fitness but for mental health. That really helps my recovery not wanting to use. I learned how to be a father again.”

Cox believes he is now strong enough in his recovery that he was able to go off Vivotrol recently.

Besides continuing his own counseling, Cox has become a resource to others on heroin who are trying to find a way out.

For those who are sincere, Cox doesn’t tell them what to do, but tells them what has worked for him.

“I tell them, ‘Give it a try. You have nothing to lose. You gamble with your life every day. Give it a shot.’ It has worked for a lot of people.”

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