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The new edition of the "Heroin Still Kills" film has a female lead and will include updates relevant to the epidemic’s evolution — from the use of texting to the dangers of fentanyl.
The new edition of the "Heroin Still Kills" film has a female lead and will include updates relevant to the epidemic’s evolution — from the use of texting to the dangers of fentanyl. (Courtesy photo)

Dancers from Westminster-based Project C Studio leapt across the stage at the Carroll Community College Scott Center Saturday afternoon.

Watching them were audience members, videographer Shawn Wehland of Sykesville-based Swehland Productions, Carroll theater technicians, and Carroll County officials ready to film scenes for the reboot of “Heroin Kills,” aptly named “Heroin Still Kills.”

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The original film was a 35-minute video telling the story of a young man and others lost to overdoses in the late 1990s. The new edition has a female lead and will include updates relevant to the epidemic’s evolution — from the use of texting to the dangers of fentanyl.

Linda Auerback, the Carroll County Health Department’s substance use prevention supervisor and producer of the original “Heroin Kills” video that reached 48 states and 11 countries, was also sitting in the audience Saturday, back to oversee the reboot of the film with help from Tim Weber, the State's Attorney's Office drug liaison.

An update 20 years later

“We will use the same logo, same branding, same campaign,” Auerback said. “We do a lot of prevention stuff in schools — but it’s been needing an update.”

Westminster High School students Keira Seargeant, 14, and Danielle Rizzo, 13, came out to sit in the audience as extras Saturday. They said they’d just seen the film in class this year and thought it would be cool to be a part of the reboot.

The number of drug and alcohol-related deaths increased 9 percent in 2017, according to data released by the Maryland Department of Health. Most of them were opioid related.

“I definitely think it’s still going to be something kids laugh at in health class, but it’ll be… for modern kids,” said Seargeant. “There was a disconnect [with the old film]. Even you’d look at the hair and think, ‘I can’t relate to this.’ ”

But all jokes aside, Rizzo said it just plain sucks.

“Families are kind of torn apart by [heroin addiction],” she said. “They’re really affected; it really hurts. When you find out someone has an addiction, it’s completely different. You see them differently. It’s terrifying and it’s emotional, and you don’t have the same trust toward them. It hurts.”

The two girls said they’d also be extras for the funeral scene, which is scheduled for 9 a.m. to noon Sunday, July 29 at the Burrier-Queen Funeral Home, 1212 West Old Liberty Road in Sykesville. They said they weren’t told more than that they should dress formally for a funeral scene.

“If it’s anything like the last one,” Rizzo said, “it’ll probably be really emotional.”

The lead actress in the reboot, Cheyenne Puga, 22, is a Carroll County native who now lives in North Carolina. She said she saw the original film in eighth grade, found out about the opportunity to perform in the film on Facebook, and felt a need to help the cause.

“I’m hoping that it will resonate more with today’s youth; the 1998 version is a little outdated,” Puga said in between scenes, sporting a purple leotard with her brown curly hair in a ponytail.

She said she also likes that the lead is a female dancer.

“It could be anyone,” she said. “Often a heroin addict is shown as someone who is poor or disadvantaged in some way, and it’s good to show it could happen to anyone at any privilege level.”

“Heroin Kills,” 35-minute video telling the story of that young man and others lost to overdoses in the late ‘90s, became an unexpected hit of sorts, integrated not only into the Carroll County Public Schools curriculum, but into that of counties and states and countries around the world.

But what really brings the story home for Puga is her personal connection to the drug. The day before she left for college at 18 years old, she learned her sister had just started using heroin. And a month after her first semester started, she learned one of her high school friends had died from an overdose.

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“It’s been spiraling ever since,” she said. “It seems like every time I get on Facebook it showed another person has overdosed.”

When the county first decided to update the film, Carroll County had seen 32 fatal drug and alcohol overdoses through April 2018 — at least 17 of which have involved heroin or other opioids. By the time it got to filming the first scenes on July 28, there’d been 52 deaths in the county, according to Auerback, with 40 due to fentanyl.

An emphasis on recovery

But death doesn’t have to be the end; heroin doesn’t have to kill.

Puga said four years later, her sister is in recovery and doing well.

“I feel lucky nothing has happened to her,” she said. “She’s working very hard to be her best self.”

And Auerback said recovery is something that will be emphasized more in the newer version of the film — as the topic becomes less taboo and the stigma around the subject lifts. There will also be more emphasis on ways to say no and prevent encounters with the drug in the first place, she said.

Through the first half of 2018, Carroll County has seen nearly as many fatal overdoses as it did all of last year and in 2016, a heart-wrenching statistic that shows street drugs being used may be more potent and deadlier than ever.

“It’s everything we can do to get the message across not to pick up,” said Auerback, “because once you do, you’re dealing with it for life. You can’t just put it back down.

“We have a lot of calls saying, ‘I saw that in eighth grade, ninth grade, and that’s why I didn’t pick up,’ ” she said. “[They said] ’I didn’t want it to be my parents by the casket.’ ”

Weber said he knows this first hand, as when the filming of the first “Heroin Kills” was going on, he was an active heroin user and dealing with overdoses himself.

Now he’s been clean for 14 years.

“I’ve worked with Linda now for about 10 years,” Weber said. “Even before being in the State’s Attorney’s Office. It’s awesome. I call her the ‘prevention icon.’

“There’s no doubt in my mind that this is going to change lives and help people,” he said.

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