- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2006

The telephone call that forever changed Therese Pelicano’s life came in the middle of the night two years ago.

“The police have called, and Dominic is gone,” Ms. Pelicano recalls her ex-husband saying to her on the phone about their 23-year-old son.

“It’s like your life stops,” the Damascus resident says of her son’s fatal heroin overdose May 11, 2004. “I didn’t believe it, and I just wanted to see him. It’s hard even now. It has been two years, and a part of me now doesn’t believe it.”

Ms. Pelicano, 51, is among an estimated 600 parents from across the country who will attend the “Vigil for a Lost Promise” tonight in Arlington, where victims of drug abuse will be honored by their families during a candlelight ceremony.

For the first time, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is teaming up with other agencies and drug prevention groups to hold the vigil, which will feature music, photographs and speeches. It is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at 700 Army Navy Drive in Arlington.

Catherine Harnett, chief of DEA’s Demand Reduction Office, said the issue of drug abuse is often reduced to statistics.

“One of the purposes of the vigil is to really bring to light the fact that … drug abuse is a problem that is not limited to any particular socioeconomic class or neighborhood,” she said.

There appears to be no central agency that collects information on drug-related deaths, but a 2004 report in Journal of the American Medical Association showed that an estimated 17,000 people in the U.S. died from illicit drug use in 2000.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy indicates that more than 800 drug-induced deaths were reported in Maryland in 2003, and the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported 498 drug-caused deaths in 2004.

Statistics were not available for the District.

The vigil will focus on deaths by substances such as alcohol, inhalants and prescription medicine and by illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine and marijuana.

Parents and specialists say victims of drug abuse face a stigma: Police and other parents sometimes feel less sympathetic because the victims had made a conscious choice to take the drugs that cost them their lives.

“I belong to a support group for people who have lost children, but sometimes it’s difficult even in that environment because someone will say, ‘My son was a good kid and he never did drugs,’” Ms. Pelicano said. “My son was a good kid and he did do drugs, and that addiction is a disease and I don’t want people to think less of that.”

Dominic was an aspiring artist and a senior who was on the dean’s list at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. He grappled with anxiety and mental health issues since childhood, began using marijuana in high school and battled addiction to doctor-prescribed medications, Ms. Pelicano said.

A mugging the night before his death likely prompted Dominic to ingest a liquid mixture of heroin and methadone to calm his nerves, she said.

“He was self-medicating and under treatment and was supposed to enter rehab. He told me he knew this problem was bigger than he was,” Ms. Pelicano said.

Some of Dominic’s artwork and his father’s band, in which Dominic was a guitarist, will be displayed tonight.

Joyce Nalepka, president of the Silver Spring-based Drug Free Kids: America’s Challenge, said she hopes the vigil will urge families to connect and form local support groups.

“We need national leadership,” said Miss Nalepka, who also is an advocate of student drug-testing and family involvement with children to prevent drug use.

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