Opioid addiction devastates Minn. veteran's family, who are now hoping to help others
BLOMKEST, Minn. — John Schlegel was an easy-going, funny, open and giving man, one with a huge heart who always wanted to help others, even joining the U.S. Army to do so. He also suffered and battled against an opioid addiction, something he tried to keep hidden from those closest to him.
"Honestly, he cared about others more than he cared about himself, which is why we're here today," said Schlegel's sister, Kaitlin Budish, of Shakopee, Minn.
Schlegel, 24, of Blomkest in central Minnesota, lost his war against his addiction on Nov. 4, when he passed away in his sleep, possibly from an unintentional overdose. Now, his heartbroken family, including parents Brian and Kristin Schlegel, is sharing Schlegel's story, in the hope that it will help other families avoid the same.
"I want to speak out because losing such a close family member is indescribable. It's the most painful event you could ever imagine. If anything good can come from this tragedy, I believe it is raising awareness, so that hopefully other families won't have to experience the kind of pain we are in," said Budish in an email.
In 2016, there were approximately 64,000 deaths in the United States tied to drug overdoses, with fentanyl, heroin and prescription opioids leading the way, all of them seeing huge increases over 2015, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
"Until I saw my own brother struggle with drug addiction, I never had any idea how huge of a problem this is. People need to be aware and speak out about this epidemic," Budish said.
For Schlegel, it began after an injury during a club hockey game in Alaska, where Schlegel was stationed while he served with the U.S. Army's 1-24 Infantry Battalion, where he worked on a Stryker armored vehicle. The injury resulted in nerve damage which caused shooting pain throughout his body, Budish said.
"Throughout that time, he was prescribed various pain medications," Budish said.
When Schlegel was no longer able to afford the prescriptions, he turned to street drugs and other opioids.
"Which are cheaper and very easily accessible through drug dealers in our local area," Budish said, which is one of the issues she hopes a solution can be found for. "Drugs are also much too easily accessible. John never had any issue purchasing them whenever he wanted."
The family was aware of Schlegel's struggles, but he was hesitant to speak about it, or ask for help, Budish said. The family started finding unusual items in his belongings that can be used to consume opioids - like spoons, tinfoil and lighters; and he would hide where he was going. Budish said her brother would shut off the location app on his iPhone, so his parents wouldn't be able to track him. Also, when he was using, Schlegel would struggle to stay awake during the day.
"He always looked exhausted and had zero energy, which was entirely unlike him," Budish said.
He knew he needed to quit, but felt shame, Budish said. Instead, he tried to take care of it on his own. When Budish and their parents tried to speak with Schlegel, he would get defensive, because he didn't want them to know he had a problem.
"We were heartbroken and not entirely sure what to do, because you can't force someone into treatment, they need to want to go. When he finally asked for help this last month, we were overjoyed and saw great progression, until his relapse," Budish said.
She also wishes there was more help available for not only the one addicted, but for their families and friends.
"I think the first step is informing families on what they can actually do when they are in this crisis. My parents and I had no idea where to start to begin to help him," Budish said.
Schlegel did approach the Veteran's Administration system, but it took months, first for them to decide on his eligibility and then to schedule Schlegel's follow-up appointments, Budish said. He was diagnosed with depression and was put on medication to treat that. When Schlegel was finally able to see a medical team with the VA, Budish said they just had him continue the medication he was on and said they would see him in a year.
"This then leads us to his recently admitting that he was ready for consistent counseling, but it was too late," Budish said.
On Nov. 3, Schlegel relapsed and overnight while he was sleeping he passed away. While the official results won't be back for weeks, Budish said based on preliminary results; it seems that Schlegel unintentionally overdosed, and because he had been clean for some time the relapse caused respiratory failure while Schlegel was sleeping.
"He was completely unaware that he was in trouble," Budish said.
As Budish and the rest of her family mourn the loss of Schlegel, Budish is speaking out and sharing any information she can to assist others.
"Drugs do kill, and it happens every day. If we make this a larger public concern than it is now, I know we can fight together to save lives," Budish said.
Budish wants people to understand that the addict probably isn't a bad person, but someone in pain, either mentally or physically, and they need your help.
"Some of the most sensitive, loving people use drugs to suppress and deal with their pain," Budish said. "If you learn that someone you know is struggling with addiction, please don't be judgemental; be loving, ready to listen, eager to help and available. Overcoming a drug addiction doesn't happen overnight. It takes a lot of patience and time, so don't give up on that person."