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Christmas tree in Greene County honors those lost to, struggling with drugs

Having lost her son last year to an overdose, Ruckersville-area resident Tonya Shifflett recently placed a Christmas tree at the Greene County Sheriff’s office to commemorate the toll of the ongoing drug epidemic.

"It’s to remember the ones we lost and to honor those who are still out there fighting," she told The Daily Progress.

Shifflett’s 21-year-old son, Austin Wayne Harlow, died from fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s lethal in extremely small doses. The man who supplied him the drug was later convicted of trafficking and sentenced to 20 years.

In 2022, the year Harlow died, there were 29 synthetic opioid deaths in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. There were 1,967 statewide, nearly twice the number of automobile fatalities, creating a death rate of 23 per 100,000 residents.

The drug is so potent and its death toll so high that fentanyl poisoning now accounts for more than 70% of American overdose deaths. It is the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 18 and 45, according to a nonprofit group called 4ThemWeFight.

Shifflett has fought her own fight against addiction and regrets that her son did not win his.

"He didn’t get the chance that I got to get clean," she said.

Choosing a red ornament to honor her son as a symbol of her own broken heart, Shifflett said she welcomes others who have lost a loved one to drugs or know someone caught in the grip of addiction to place an ornament on the tree.

"If we can save one life," she said.


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