Mother and Daughter Launch BirdieLight to Educate About Unintentional Fentanyl Ingestion, Provides Test Strips
A grieving mother and sister are transforming their loss into an effort to prevent fentanyl deaths.
Beth Weinstock says that her son Eli’s death from an unintentional fentanyl overdose last March made her slow down and pay attention to the world around her, to the directions the universe was pushing her.
“Grief strips away everything,” she says.
Eli, a Bexley High School graduate and a student at American University, was found with kratom, a legal herbal supplement, and the synthetic opioid fentanyl in his system. Beth, who is a medical doctor, doesn’t know what Eli thought he was taking, but she learned that a simple test exists that would have alerted him to the presence of fentanyl. It could have saved his life.
What the universe was urging her to do, Beth felt, was to help prevent such accidents from happening to others. She has made it her mission to get fentanyl test strips into the hands of every 15-to-25-year-old she can.
More than 100,000 people in the U.S. died from an unintentional overdose in the 12 months ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5 percent from the prior 12 months. Almost two-thirds of those deaths involved some form of fentanyl, which is increasingly showing up in cocaine, pressed pills and methamphetamine. Fentanyl test strips allow people to check whether a pill, a powder or a crystal contains fentanyl by dissolving the drug in water and placing some of the resulting solution on the strip.
Dispatches from the Overdose Crisis:Light in the darkness
On a gorgeous evening in August, Beth and her daughter Olivia, 22—Eli’s older sister—went to Eli’s gravesite. They shared a beer, and with the energy they felt there—close to Eli—they started fleshing out a plan for an organization that would take their sorrow and transform it.
In September, they launched the nonprofit BirdieLight, to educate parents and young people through small group meetings on ways to reduce the harms posed by fentanyl use. They want to share this message at high schools and colleges nationwide.
The name BirdieLight comes from a nickname Eli’s best friends in middle school called themselves, as well as a reference to how, in the wake of someone’s death, people often say the light of those who are lost persists.
The logo is a bird wearing a miner’s helmet. “I started thinking about birds, and the canary in the coal mine is in some ways the fentanyl test strip,” Beth says.
Finally, they saw that Eli’s name was in the middle of the word—just as he is at the heart of their work.
Their message, Olivia says, is transparent and realistic: “If you’re planning to take something, we’re saying, ‘Here’s a way to safely make that decision. Closer to safe. [It’s] best to test.’”
They point out that test strips are not 100 percent effective, and they stress the need to have the overdose reversal drug naloxone (or Narcan) available and to never use alone. In Ohio, test strips are still considered illegal drug paraphernalia, but there is legislation in the works to change that.
Olivia and Beth say that at Eli’s memorial, many people said he was their best friend. Eli could bring people together, and in this way, Beth and Olivia carry on his legacy. The more they do this work, they say, the more they are still with him.
Recently, Beth got a call from some college students who wanted some test strips, and when she met up with them, she learned that they were 20 years old—the same age as Eli.
She felt like she was there to save their lives.
This story is from the January 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.