Saige Earley, who was found dead of a heroin overdose in a toilet stall at Syracuse airport, is the face of real people devastated by the worst drug epidemic in American history
Saige Earley was gone in stages.
To her mother, Ellen, the 22-year-old grew increasingly detached within weeks of returning from the dentist with a fateful prescription for opioid painkillers. The young woman with long dark hair and a broad toothy smile was gone physically a few months later when she walked out on her young son and left Ellen wondering if her daughter was even alive.
Then last September, Saige was gone for good, found dead of a heroin overdose in a toilet stall at Syracuse airport, clutching a plane ticket to drug rehab in California.
Whether she escaped in her insatiable appetite for books, dancing till exhausted, headphones blaring music, walks upon walks, or the drugs that cut her life so terribly short, she simply needed to run, Saiges father, Jason, wrote in a moving and frank obituary. But she always wanted to return, to make us laugh, to love her baby, to show us this cruel yet fascinating world through her eyes.
The obituary caught the eye of the New York attorney generals office as it built a sweeping lawsuit filed against the opioid industry last month. The legal action singled out Saige Earley as the face of real people devastated by the worst drug epidemic in American history.
An epidemic fomented in board rooms
The New York lawsuit drew a clear line between the dentist prescribing Saige Earley opioids after he removed her wisdom teeth in the spring of 2017 and the heroin overdose that claimed her life 18 months later. But her reality was messier, and in its own way a deeper indictment of the lengths the drug industry went to blame Saige and other victims of the epidemic for their deaths.
Topping a long list of accused in the New York action is Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, and those members of the Sackler family who owned and ran the company.
The lawsuit reveals an email written by Dr Richard Sackler, Purdues head of marketing who ramped up sales of OxyContin by downplaying the risks of addiction from its high dose of narcotic. As overdoses and deaths escalated, Sackler painted the victims as criminals to blame for their own condition.
They get themselves addicted over and over again, he wrote in a 2001 email. They engage in it with full, criminal intent. Why should they be entitled to our sympathies?
Sackler has apologised for using insensitive language in what he said was his frustration at illegal drug use. But it was more than a passing outburst. Blaming the victims evolved as a central strategy as Purdue and other opioid makers sought to keep the door open to the mass prescribing earning billions of dollars a year even as it fuelled an escalating human tragedy that has claimed about 400,000 lives over the past two decades.
The manufacturers, their lobbyists and well funded industry front organisations played on societys stigma against those sucked into addiction by powerful narcotic drugs to blame the person, not the pill. Addiction was painted as a lifestyle choice, and those who made it as degenerates.
But for Saige Earley, it was a struggle for survival.
At times she kept a diary. A year after she walked out of the dentists office, opioids were testing her will to live.
I dont want to overdose and die. Thats not for sure though because it changes all the time. Sometimes I do want to, she wrote.