By Stacey Dresner
SPRINGFIELD – Mark Kofman loved to play basketball. He played for four years at Longmeadow High School, and played AAU basketball as well. He was a fixture at the Springfield Jewish Community Center, where he played basketball on several leagues.
“He played all the time. He was a really great athlete,” said his sister, Rachel.
Mark was born in the former Soviet Union, but raised in Longmeadow by his parents, Yelena and Boris, who worked hard to provide a good life for Mark and Rachel, who was born after the family moved to the U.S.
Mark graduated from Suffolk University in Boston, where he studied marketing. He got a great job out of school-working as a medical gas specialist. He seemed to have his whole life ahead of him.
But last Feb. 25, just one day after his 24th birthday, Mark Kofman died from a heroin overdose.
Rachel, now 20 and a student at Bryant University, recalls the morning when her father found Mark unconscious.
“It was so tragic walking in and seeing him like that. It was like some kind of horror movie,” Rachel recalled.
Rachel will be one of the speakers at “Today’s Teens: Substance Abuse in the Suburbs” a panel discussion at the Springfield JCC on Sunday, March 15. The program is co-sponsored by the JCC and Jewish Family Service of Western Mass.
The panel discussion, designed to educate parents of the growing use of hard drugs by suburban teens, will address issues such as why dangerous teen drug use has spread from the city to the suburbs, how social media has changed the face of drugs, and signs to look for if you think a teen you know might be in trouble.
Besides Rachel Kofman, speakers on the panel will include Cindy Solin, LICSW, and a private practice clinician in Longmeadow, and Mark Lange, MEd, mental health counselor on the substance abuse team at Baystate Wing Memorial Hospital. The panel will be moderated by Donna Gordon, LICSW, Jewish Family Service Clinical Director.
Gordon said that one of the reasons they decided to do the panel was Mark Kofman’s death.
“We felt like that was a beginning to look at what was happening. There is an increase in teens using harder drugs and there is an increase in the severity in what is happening,” Gordon said. “We were looking at that and talking about it a lot. When this young man overdosed it just kind of blew people away and we decided we had to do something.”
Gordon said that the panel is specifically for parents of teens.
“One of our goals is for parents to become more informed and understand it is a real concern and a real issue, much more dangerous than years ago. So, we want to
tell them about different drugs, both heroin and other drugs which are gateways, to just give them a little information about what they are, how they act, how the body reacts to them. We want to talk to them about treatment options and places within the area that provide substance abuse treatment; and why it is difficult — what kind of issues it brings up as a family.”
The increased sale and use of opiates like heroin have resulted in a less than flattering nickname for Interstate 91.
“Police officers are referring to it as the ‘Heroin Highway’ because a lot of heroin is working its way from parts of New York and the tri-state area up to New England,” said Amy Siege, a clinical social worker at Jewish Family Service.
The farther outside the tri-state area, the more that drug dealers are charging for these drugs.
“A bag that will sell in New York for $5 goes for $40 in New England. People load up their car with drugs and drive up to Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine. The governor of Vermont spoke about this problem in his state of the union address last year,” Siege said.
Siege said that the problem of hard drug usage is increasing in the teen population.
“In the past our kids experimented with alcohol and marijuana, maybe a little cocaine, and while that certainly is still going on, it has gone to the next level. This was highlighted when the young man died last year. Kids are experimenting with opiates which are very addictive and deadly,” Siege said.
‘I can stop any time I want’
Rachel Kofman said that her brother Mark got addicted to drugs slowly.
“We think that in high school he smoked marijuana and as he got into college he was prescribed painkillers,” Rachel said. “Sometimes when people are prescribed painkillers, it is very easy to abuse them.
We think that was the start of it.”
Rachel said that Mark started using heroin for just six months before he passed away.
“I think what happened was, he couldn’t afford taking painkillers, which are so much more expensive. I think someone said, ‘Hey, try this. It is less expensive and you can get the same high from it.’ We didn’t realize for quite a bit of time. We asked him and he said, ‘No, no, he wasn’t [using heroin].’ And of course we are his family and we didn’t want to believe it.”
Rachel remembers being confused as to why her brother needed to abuse drugs. He had told his family he was depressed for some time and even saw a counselor in Boston about it, but continued to use drugs.
“My parents did everything for us, so I was like, what could he possibly be upset about?” Rachel recalls thinking.
As they slowly began to realize that
Mark had a serious substance abuse problem, the Kofman family tried to convince him to get help.
“We said, ‘We want to help you, we will send you to rehab.’ But heroin is one of those things that if you are addicted you have to want to stop and it was very clear that he didn’t want to stop at that time.”
For months, Mark fell deeper and deeper into substance abuse.
“There were a lot of lies. He began to steal money. Everything that an addict would do, he had done. But he couldn’t say the words – that he was an addict. We would say, ‘You are addicted,’ and he would say, ‘No I’m not. I can stop at any time I want.’”
The family got him into rehab several times, but those efforts were unsuccessful as well as extremely expensive.
“My parents paid out of the pocket for that rehab, willing to sacrifice a lot for him, but he didn’t want to stay. He ended up coming home within a few days,” Rachel said.
At one point his parents went to court and had Mark committed as part of Section 35, a Massachusetts law that allows a judge to “involuntarily commit someone whose alcohol or drug use puts themselves, or others, at risk.”
That effort was unsuccessful as well.
Mark was twice committed to drug treatment centers, but both times he left after a week or two because insurance wouldn’t cover a longer stay. Experts say that a heroin addict needs at least 90 days to get serious help, but the family’s insurance didn’t cover that kind of treatment.
“At 5:30 in the morning my father went into Mark’s bedroom and started screaming. And I just knew.”
Mark had asphyxiated during his overdose and was in a coma. After a week in the hospital, when the doctors told them he was brain dead, the family chose to take him off life-support.
Rachel said she wants to share her family’s story to help other families.
“Addiction is so powerful. It has such an effect on the family.”
“Parents need to be aware of this problem,” Siege said. “They have to be a part of the conversation.”