Brother’s death leads Colorado software engineer to connect victims of opioid abuse through maps

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After his little brother died of Oxycontin abuse, Jeremiah Lindemann tried volunteering in a rehab center for people addicted to opioids.

He felt awkward, unhelpful and sad, so he stopped. Years would pass before Lindemann, a mapping software engineer from Thornton, found a way to honor his brother and, at the same time, help other families grieving loved ones who overdosed on opioids.

Lindemann, skilled at digging up and then mapping data for cities, counties and state governments across the country, took his day-job talents to stoke an after-hours project. He began by mining data on opioid deaths and creating a public website to spread the information, inviting families to contribute. In less than two years, his online gallery has grown to include the profiles of 416 people who died because of oxycodone, heroin, morphine and other opioids.

At first, relatives sent Lindemann photos and tributes they wanted him to share. But as word spread through his Facebook page and other social media sites, Lindemann created a button that allows people to upload their own stories.

The faces appear when you click on a map of the United States and Canada, where gray circles represent each death. Lindemann wants people to see them as beloved, multifaceted people, not just the numbered victims of the nation’s opioid epidemic.

There is Deja Rachelle Hale, smiling for the camera as her long brown hair fills the frame. She had just started college and hoped to work in a children’s dental office when she overdosed on prescription medication. The Colorado Springs woman “loved others more than she loved herself.”

Matt Lazarus, of Castle Rock, was “the boy who was known for having a heart of gold,” his family wrote. “Love and miss you forever Matthew.” Keith Meyer of Denver, who died in 2012 at age 24, is pictured with a boyish grin and yellow boutineer on the lapel of his tuxedo. J.P. Carroll, from Aurora, was a giver of “big bear hugs,” had a “magnetic personality” and big brown eyes.

The first entry on the map of profiles is J.T. Lindemann, who was 23 when he died in Belle Fourche, S.D. He had gone to rehab more than once, and admitted he was “doctor shopping,” visiting numerous hospitals to obtain additional prescriptions for Oxycontin.

J.T. Lindemann grew up playing baseball and taught himself to play the drums and guitar. He wrote lyrics on fast-food napkins and scraps of paper. “After struggling for years with addiction, his body could no longer handle the abuse, shame and sadness,” his profile says. He died in 2007.

“He was my best friend and my best man,” said Jeremiah Lindemann, who was older by seven years.

In 2015, opiate-related deaths in Colorado reached 472. Those included 329 people who died from an overdose of prescription opioids, according to the state Department of Public Health and Environment. Nationally, opioid overdoses have increased by 200 percent since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2014, 28,647 people – 61 percent of all drug overdose deaths in this country – involved opioids.

Besides the gallery of photos, Lindemann has posted various maps illustrating the epidemic. Some he created and others were mapped by cities and counties with software from Esri, the geographic information systems company where Lindemann works. Using data from the Jefferson County coroner, he mapped the 34 prescription drug deaths and 16 heroin deaths in 2014 in that county. The data is broken down by age, gender and city, and includes death rates based on population.

A similar map explores Adams County, where 14 people died in Thornton alone in 2014 of fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, morphine and heroin. That map earned him an invitation to present to the Adams County commissioners and launched a discussion of the Tri-County Health Department, which named him “public health hero of the year” last year.

Other maps show drop-off locations for unused prescription drugs in Oakland County, Mich., accidental overdoses in Lancaster County, Pa., and the spots in various cities where paramedics have administered the life-saving medication Naloxone to reverse the effects of overdose.

One shaded map shows the percentage of Colorado high school students who reported abusing prescription drugs (as high as 17 percent in Front Range cities), based on data Lindemann collected from the nonprofit Rise Above Colorado.

Simply put, the maps are a way to make people care about what happened to his brother and thousands of others, Lindemann said. “When you see what the impact is near you, you pay attention,” he said. “People can see this is happening where they live.”

He hopes policymakers, health professionals and others can use the maps to concentrate help where it’s most needed, improve treatment programs, reform insurance plans to cover longer rehab, and require more law officers to carry overdose medication. And as the general public becomes more aware of the epidemic, he hopes people will take more care to properly dispose of unused painkillers and talk to their kids about opioids.

It took Lindemann seven years after his brother’s death to find a way to help “break up the stigma” of addiction and contribute to the conversation, in a way that wasn’t too painful for him to handle.

“Everyone grieves a little bit differently,” Lindemann said. “I’m more of a technology geek. This has been my voice and my way.”