Website unites families of heroin overdose victims

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Becoming a mother gave Mimi Harder memories that will last a lifetime.

She said her first-born son, Shelby, was a curious kid. He was always with her and even walked her down the aisle when she got remarried.

“He was so smart. He had an IQ of 145. He was in the gifted child program when it was Memphis City Schools. He loved animals," she said.

But his priorities changed in high school. Shelby started experimenting with drugs.

“We noticed when his grades dropped when he was a junior in high school,” Harder said.

They sent him to rehab and he got clean, but it didn’t stick. He fell back into drugs after his 18th birthday.

His addictions took over; his mom said she didn’t know what to do.

“Some point after that I believe is when he was introduced to heroin. It’s my understanding the first time you do heroin it’s a choice and then after that you’re hooked,” she said.

Her son went in and out of jail and even the hospital but never got better. He overdosed in early March.

“He was found in a bathroom at a fast food restaurant. They were able to revive him with the Narcan. He was taken to the Regional One,” she said.

But she said he was released from the hospital without any addiction help, so he fell back into his old ways. A few days went by and she hadn’t heard from him. She called everywhere and, as a last resort, decided to check with the morgue.

“I said, 'My son’s been missing for a week. I'm just going to cross you off the list. You guys don’t have him there do you?' I gave the information and they put me on hold. She came back and said, ‘Oh yea we got him.’ I was like, ‘Wow,'" Harder said of that day in March. "It felt like someone had just punched me in my gut and ripped my heart out of my body. I couldn’t breathe for a few seconds. It’s gut-wrenching."

Her son was only 20.

She now talks about his story as much as she can to try to teach people about the hidden risks of heroin addiction.

"I want to help people who are loved ones of addicts, help to empower them to know the difference between helping and enabling. I want addicts to know the first time it's a choice but now they're suffering from a disease. There are ways we can help you," she said.

His face is now just one of hundreds of victims memorialized in a new GIS-based map of overdose victims.

“It’s gut-wrenching. One moment you’re like, 'He’s home with heaven and God. The next minute it’s, 'Man, he’s not here,'” Harder said.

Acting U.S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi also showed us another map that shows how overdoses and arrests for both heroin and opioids are increasing every year.

“Every decade there’s a new drug that comes on. Last decade it was meth. Now we have heroin," Laurenzi said.

In fact, Shelby County reported 44 heroin overdose deaths in 2013, 76 in 2014 and 81 in 2015. Officials were still calculating the 2016 stats but predicted the number would be even higher.

“We are approaching easily one every week,” Laurenzi said.

Emily Harvey’s boyfriend is also on the map; he overdosed at age 26.

“It started with pain medication. That became too expensive. That’s how he moved to heroin,” she said.

Harvey is now an advocate; she worked with St. John's United Methodist Church in Midtown to install a pay phone. It’s free and anyone can pick it up just to talk with a loved one who’s died.

"I've been able to tell him about the phone booth, me trying to give back and me trying to help others,” she said. “I want to raise awareness for the heroin epidemic in Memphis because a lot of people don’t know it’s going on.”

Harder visited and signed the guest book.

They both hope sharing their stories will help save a life.

The U.S. attorney said officials were prioritizing prosecuting heroin distributors. Dealers whose recipients die could face 20 years to life in prison, Laurenzi said.

You can learn more about the "phone of the spirit" and find the address here.

Harder blogs and offers advice for other grieving families at her website doitforshelby.com.