by Caleigh Wells
Above Lexington’s Blue Sky Bakery lives a quiet, generous woman. To many, her story remains unknown. Elizabeth Shields lives alone. She is deeply spiritual, and volunteers regularly at the local therapeutic riding program. Two years ago, her son Hunter Riccio died of a heroin overdose. He was 24. But Shields remembers him being so much more than the drug on which he relied.
“Hunter’s a loving sweet soul,” she said, speaking of him still in the present tense. “Every photo I have of him in this book from his childhood he’s holding a cat, he’s holding a horse, he’s got his dogs,” she said. “He has so many people who love him.”
Shields also recalled his passions as an outdoorsman, an avid fiddler, and a talented carpenter. Riccio is part of a rising trend in heroin and opioid-related deaths, especially in young men and middle-aged women. Unlike when it first became popular decades ago, heroin is now cheaper and more potent, making it more accessible and more dangerous.
In Virginia, opioid deaths surpassed traffic accidents in number of deaths last year. Shields says Riccio was introduced to heroin by his girlfriend. She also says the pain he experienced from his work in carpentry and masonry made the withdrawals especially difficult to endure, so it was not easy to stay clean.
When Riccio used heroin that last time, he was on a trip in New Orleans. Shields did not learn of his overdose until a woman he met there called her the following morning. Shields believes her spirituality allows her to maintain a relationship with her son today.
She says she spoke with him the day after his death, and he told her the incident was a mistake.
“Hunter came through to me after he died.” She says he told her, “Mom, this was not intentional, I didn’t want this.”
Shields says the support from her older son Isaac and from Riccio’s friends have helped her recover from his death two years ago. She says the connection she maintains with him keeps him with her today. Shields says she has learned from her son’s experience that the best defense against drug addiction is prevention.
“I think the kids need to see the horrible side of what happens,” she said. “It is far more insidious a problem…than people realize.”
Above all, she says that she wants to be an active voice against the recent increase in heroin and opioid use.
“I am adamant that something has to be done,” she said. “Something must be done.”