STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here are a few basic facts about opioids. In 2016, opioids were linked to more deaths in the United States than car crashes. They killed more people than breast cancer, even more than guns. Drug overdoses overall are the leading killer of people under the age of 50. And in 2016, almost 50,000 of those drug overdose deaths were caused by opioids. Now, numbers like these become real when you focus on just a few of the people affected. And that is what we've been doing in my home state of Indiana, in the city of Muncie. Today NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on a family paying the ultimate price.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: I met Kathryn Sexton last summer at a recovery support group.
KATHRYN SEXTON: Hi. I'm Kathryn.
NOGUCHI: Tall, poised and intelligent, Kathryn, or Katy, spoke unflinchingly about death. She had already lost most of her high school friends and her college scholarship to addiction.
K. SEXTON: I don't want to go to any more funerals.
NOGUCHI: At the time, she was struggling but had been sober a month. She told me she loved her parents above all and wanted to free them of worry.
K. SEXTON: Even now that I'm clean, it's a, is she going to stay clean this time? And it stresses them out every single day.
NOGUCHI: We kept in touch, texting about her treatment and our plans to meet up again. In September, she stopped responding, but I kept texting - until in early November, her mother texted back to say Katy died on Halloween.
(SOUNDBITE OF POURING RAIN)
MELISSA SEXTON: Did you bring a life boat?
NOGUCHI: It is now five months later. As I arrive at her parents' home, heavy rain falls relentlessly, a fitting backdrop for Melissa and Dale Sexton's grief.
M. SEXTON: Did you have any trouble getting here?
NOGUCHI: Not at all. Not at all.
M. SEXTON: OK. Come on in.
NOGUCHI: The Sextons say they haven't put words to what happened since that day. Between sobs, Melissa recounts returning from the store and making coffee then finding Katy slumped in her bed.
M. SEXTON: And I got closer, and I realized. And so I immediately started CPR and calling 911.
NOGUCHI: In this tiny town, the fire station is around the block. The medical personnel are friends. For over an hour, they tried to revive Katy.
M. SEXTON: She had vomited and aspirated.
NOGUCHI: Her parents say Katy had been trying to fill a prescription for medication to blunt the drug cravings, but insurance required a waiting period. Melissa Sexton says she has not visited Katy's room but occupies herself collecting mementos.
M. SEXTON: This is one of my Katy boxes. I've just put stuff together.
NOGUCHI: In it are photos and items that played parts in cherished histories or inside jokes.
M. SEXTON: There's Jacob (ph). He was the pirate, and she was the gypsy. And that's Halloween. She always loved Halloween. It's just so bitterly ironic.
NOGUCHI: As we talk and thumb through 23 years of Katie's life, we're tabulating in a sense all but that the Sextons have lost. Innocence, laughter, a future with grandchildren. Katy was a cellist. She wanted to become a nurse so she could help care for her severely autistic brother, Jacob. The financial loss on top of everything is another source of despair. They drained their accounts to try to save Katy. Now they're left with feelings of failure and self-recrimination.
DALE SEXTON: I don't know what would or couldn't have made a difference. I just know it was my responsibility. And I didn't meet it.
M. SEXTON: No. You did everything. Honey, you cashed your last pension so that we could send her to rehab. In every turn, we did everything we could to the expense of our family's well-being to try to save her.
NOGUCHI: The Sextons are still trying to tie up the loose ends of Katy's financial life.
M. SEXTON: Her student loans. They, of course, were wanting their money. And it's, like, she's gone, you know?
D. SEXTON: And her phone bill. Last time I got a collection call from rehab saying, we still need this much money, I didn't send them a check. I sent them a death certificate.
NOGUCHI: These are the cruel practicalities that Dale Sexton tries to spare his wife.
M. SEXTON: He goes every month and pays a cash payment to the mortuary so that I don't ever have to see a paper trail.
NOGUCHI: All around the Sextons, young people are dying from opioids. One of the first was the girl across the street. When we spoke last year, Katy told me seven of her high school friends had died from the drug or related causes.
M. SEXTON: We've lost a lot of kids in this community and the surrounding communities.
D. SEXTON: They said one weekend there were, in a three-county area, there were 54 OD's in a weekend.
NOGUCHI: Most of those weren't fatal. But with so many families facing the same crisis, Dale says, it's no wonder treatment is so hard to come by.
D. SEXTON: The problem has outspent the resources. You know? The problem has far outraced the resources.
NOGUCHI: Local Muncie economist Michael Hick's worries the intensity of opioids puts them in an epidemic class all their own. He says it will likely require still more public and private dollars to fix.
MICHAEL HICKS: I think we're looking at a fairly grim period of investment to try to solve a problem that we're going to still have around for some time.
NOGUCHI: Hicks, who works at Ball State University, says when a person dies, they don't just leave empty space for the family. That loss can be measured in economic terms, lifetimes of lost earnings and family and social contribution. The White House Council of Economic Advisers estimates the economic impact for 2015 alone reached $504 billion. That number, half a trillion dollars, is only a best guess as to what a person's life might have been worth, multiplied by the tens of thousands of lives diminished or abruptly ended. For Melissa Sexton, it misses something important, the loss of joy and hope.
M. SEXTON: And now we're left with this huge, gaping void in our life, in our family, trying to figure out, how are we supposed to move on from this? You never can. You could never fill a void like that. Never.
NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Muncie, Ind.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I DIE YOUNG")
THE BAND PERRY: (Singing) If I die young, bury me in satin. Lay me down on a bed of roses. Sink me in the river.
INSKEEP: The song is called, "If I Die Young" by The Band Perry. It was a song that was played at Katy Sexton's funeral. Her parents say it was one of her favorites.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I DIE YOUNG")
THE BAND PERRY: (Singing) Lord, make me a rainbow. I'll shine down on my mother. She'll know I'm safe with you when she stands under my colors. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.