Brookfield East High School teacher Chris Guthrie knew Luke Pulsifer as a talented artist with a bright mind. After Luke graduated in 2012, unsure of what he wanted to do next, Guthrie would send him an occasional email with job leads to give him a nudge. But Guthrie said he knew Luke would be successful wherever he went.
In June, Guthrie heard through the school that Luke, 19, had overdosed on heroin and been pronounced dead at his Elm Grove home.
It came as a shock to the teacher, as well as the school community that packed Luke's funeral. It had never occurred to Guthrie that people Luke's age could encounter heroin.
"Before this happened with Luke, I had no idea heroin was an issue," Guthrie said. "I'm not naive, I know drugs and alcohol are something teenagers are confronted with, but it never crossed my mind heroin was something high-schoolers are exposed to."
Over the past few years, heroin has found more buyers in Waukesha County than ever before.
Twenty-one people in the county died from heroin overdoses in 2012, topping the number of people who died in car accidents, and shattering the previous high of seven in 2008. Thirteen were in their 20s. Two lived in Brookfield.
In the months following Luke's death, as Guthrie learned about these stats, he started planning a community task force to raise awareness about the drug and provide people with resources to combat it.
The group's first event, It's Not My Kid ... Or Is It?, will be Jan. 22 at the Wilson Center, and will include a resource fair, presentations from state, county and local officials, and a question-and-answer session.
Luke's parents, Laura and Lee Pulsifer, will speak at the event.
A lesson to share
Now deeply familiar with the severity of heroin, Lee said he wishes he could have realized sooner just how tight a grip the drug could get on his son.
"I wish somebody slapped me in the face and said, 'Your son's going to die if you don't do everything you can,'" Lee said. "I wish I knew that, I really wish I knew that it was so deadly and so addicting."
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 23 percent of people who use heroin once become dependent on it.
Luke had overdosed on heroin another time before his death.
That time, Laura had gotten a call from her son that sent her driving to the Greenfield Municipal Center at 3:30 a.m. March 12. She didn't know what had happened. She only knew what her son had told her, through sobs — he had done "something stupid."
When Luke got in the car, he hugged her and said he was sorry. Laura assured him that whatever it was, they would get through it. As soon as he calmed down, she noticed gauze stuck on his arms.
He had overdosed on heroin.
She stopped the car.
"I wanted to kill him," Laura said. "And I wanted to hug him, and never let go. I chose the second one."
Luke was was routed through a diversion program so he was not prosecuted. He received out-patient care from Rosecrance and had clean drug tests in April and May. He seemed to be his old self again.
On June 10, Laura discussed other treatment options with Luke before he went out with a friend. That night, she heard him come inside at about 12:50 a.m. He didn't say goodnight, but she heard his door squeak open and shut. Relieved he was home, she went to sleep.
The next morning Laura tried to wake him.
"When I remember those moments, it's slow motion," she said. "I was calling his name, and he wasn't responding. I realized he wasn't asleep."
Laura and Lee hope by sharing their story, they can protect other parents from the pain they feel.
"When I used to think about heroin, I thought of the loser under the bridge in Milwaukee. What we've discovered is the face of heroin is this," Laura said, gesturing to Luke's school portrait. "We don't want his death to be in vain."
Luke's death brought students face to face with the consequences of heroin, Guthrie said. He hopes to bring more education about the drug into Elmbrook schools.
"When students are confronted by the fact that this is killing people, that's scary for them," he said. "When it's someone they know, who just graduated in 2012, for him to be gone, that is really a difficult thing for kids to comprehend."
Anyone interested in joining Guthrie's group can contact him at email@example.com.
If you go
WHAT: Resource fair, presentation and Q&A about heroin
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Jan. 22
WHERE: Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts, 19805 W. Capitol Drive
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