Heather Hoffmaster had two kids, a steady waitressing job, her own apartment and a close-knit family that supported her.
She also had a drug problem that began with painkiller prescriptions after she was mauled by a pit bull and ended with a lethal injection of the synthetic opioid fentanyl in a sober-living home in Wilkes-Barre.
“Some people have such an ignorance and blindness and think it doesn’t happen to good families, it doesn’t happen to good kids. It certainly doesn’t happen to their child. These aren’t people who are just junkies,” Hoffmaster’s mother, Amanda Hoffmaster of Shavertown, said. “They are family members. They are loved. They are people who were giving back to the community. They were working. They were paying taxes. Some people get their tooth pulled and end up addicted.”
After a several years of struggle, Heather, 24, succumbed to her addiction on Jan. 10, 2017, overdosing at an apartment on East Northampton Street, where she was living discreetly with other addicts trying to stay clean. She had moved in just days earlier.
“It pretty much was jail, rehab and a week or two of clean time,” Amanda said of her daughter’s battle with drugs. “And the cycle repeated.”
Heather’s family dates her slide into addiction to an attack years ago by a pit bull, which ripped out a chunk of her left calf muscle. The attack triggered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and introduced the Hazleton native to powerful opioids, Amanda said.
Following reconstructive surgery on Heather’s leg, doctors prescribed morphine and later Percocet to alleviate the pain.
Heather didn’t realize the power of the pills she was taking, Amanda said. One day she asked, “Mom, what is morphine?”
“She thought it was strong Ibuprofen.”
When it was time to come off the prescription drugs, she couldn’t. She was hooked.
Heather started using street drugs, including heroin, and became a totally different person, her family said.
Multiple stints in rehab didn’t work.
“The pit bull attack spiraled all that,” Amanda said.
Amanda said Heather’s heroin dealer, a romantic partner and former juvenile offender, won a huge settlement in the Luzerne County kids-for-cash scandal in which judges took kickbacks for jailing juveniles in for-profit prisons. He used the money to bankroll his drug-dealing enterprise, Amanda said.
“Because of that, she was able to get all the heroin she could ever want.”
Heather’s sister, Megan, moved in with her to try to help her quit.
The opposite occurred. Heather convinced Megan to try heroin.
“I got sucked into it. I didn’t know how addicting it was,” Megan, 27, said.
The sisters ended up going to drug rehabilitation together.
It worked for Megan.
As her mother put it, Megan was able “to cut off the people, places and things” associated with the drug world.
Heather could not.
Heather died less than a month after completing a seven-month prison sentence for a break-in. She left behind two sons, Amari, now 3, and Josh, now 10.
Several years before her death, Josh was placed in the custody of Heather’s father, Michael, and his wife, Stephanie, of Drums. They were awarded custody of Amari after birth because Heather tested positive for heroin.
In one of Heather’s final social media posts, six days before she died, she addressed her struggles by sharing a post from the group “Grateful Addicts in Recovery.”
“My goal in 2017 is not to be better than anyone else, but to be better than I used to be,” the post said.
Overdose at a sober home
For years, Heather bounced around from friends’ houses to rehab to sober-living homes to jail.
Still, Amanda always hoped, prayed and believed Heather would get clean one day for good.
Heather submitted to drug tests when she was in certain court-ordered programs, but Amanda soon found out selling “clean urine” to addicts was common in the drug world.
“She’d show me the negative drug tests, which I knew weren’t really negative,” Amanda said.
A gallon jug of “clean urine” was found under Heather’s bed at the sober-living house where she overdosed, Amanda said.
“She was only in there a few days,” Amanda said. “By the time I got there to pick up her stuff, most of it was stolen already.”
On the day she overdosed, Heather got the urge to shoot drugs just minutes after a group meeting at the home. Whether knowingly or not, she injected pure fentanyl, the ultra-lethal synthetic opioid that is much stronger than heroin, her mother said.
By the time Heather’s body was found the evening of Jan. 9, 2017, she was brain dead. She was taken to a hospital, where she died the next day.
Amanda always knew her daughter’s death was possible, but said there was no way to prepare for the grief of losing a child to drugs.
“I was blind-sided when she did die,” Amanda said.
From grief to activism
With the family’s permission, Heather’s photo was included in the August 2017 edition of People magazine’s “Faces of Heroin” project.
Amanda said she became active in local addiction recovery groups since her daughter’s fatal overdose. She wants to spread awareness that no family is immune to the crisis.
Heather came from a good, loving family who supported her, said Amanda, a mental-health social worker whose boyfriend owns a roofing company. Heather’s father, Michael, of Drums, works at Tobyhanna Army Depot.
Heather’s death prompted Amanda to open a Facebook account, which she uses to share photos of Heather and information about heroin and overdoses.
“I think people need to know what happened,” Amanda said.
Devastated by her daughter’s death, Amanda feels activism is her best way to cope.
“I never thought it would happen to me. I didn’t even know what heroin was. I didn’t know how it was used or what it could do,” she said. “I lived heroin for so long. It became my whole life.”
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