A South Dakota TV reporter turned the cameras on herself earlier this month to share the heartbreaking details of her 21-year-old daughter’s overdose death in May from fentanyl-laced heroin, just three days before a planned intervention.
Angela Kennecke of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, an investigative reporter for CBS affiliate KELO, tells PEOPLE she made the broadcasts about her daughter, Emily Groth, so other families won’t feel her pain.
“If I can prevent one other mother from going through the heartbreak I am going through, it’s good that I spoke out,” she tells PEOPLE.
An autopsy revealed Emily had six times what would be considered a therapeutic dose of fentanyl for a large adult male, and she died almost instantly, Kennecke says.
The day Emily overdosed, Kennecke had been interviewing women whose children had died from opioid-involved overdoses.
“I got a frantic call from her dad, saying, ‘I think Emily’s O.D. You need to get over here right now,’ ” she said solemnly to viewers of KELO. “I can’t even describe to you what it’s like to hear those words.”
In the months before Emily’s death, Kennecke tells PEOPLE she saw signs that something was very wrong, and in hindsight, thinks the drug abuse may have gone on for a year.
Kennecke’s beautiful, eldest daughter — an accomplished artist and gymnast with stunning good looks — was losing weight. Her eyes had become a bit sunken. She seemed like she was on something. Always close to her family, Emily started to miss important family events.
Kennecke was stunned to learn after Emily’s death that heroin, fentanyl and, most likely, needles were involved.
“Completely shocked, we were all shocked,” says Kennecke. “I feel like people think it happens to someone in a dark alley.”
“My daughter had the world at her feet, she had everything going for her, every opportunity and every privilege in life,” she continues. “It can happen to anybody.”
Fentanyl is an extremely powerful, synthetic opiate that the CDC estimates is 80 times as potent as morphine and hundreds of times more potent than heroin. It has been synthesized by drug dealers and is frequently “cut” or mixed with heroin or cocaine.
Fentanyl was involved in most of the 13 overdose deaths in Sioux Falls this year, according to the KELO news broadcast.
Leading up to Emily’s death, Kennecke took her daughter to doctors, and counseling for issues including anxiety.
Then Kennecke discovered a friend of Emily’s had died of an overdose on April 24.
“When I heard that, alarm bells went off in my head and I started calling treatment centers and called an interventionist,” Kennecke says.
She also confronted Emily about drug use. “She denied it,” says Kennecke, “that’s what addicts do, they deny it.”
On Saturday, May 12, Kennecke and other family members met with the interventionist. The next day was Mother’s Day, and Emily — who was not living at home at the time — came to brunch. Her last words to her mother were “I love you.”
“She died that Wednesday, we were going to check her into a treatment center, insurance had gone through,” Kennecke says. “I never got the chance to get her there.”
Kennecke says it was an ordeal to get Emily the help she needed while at the same time trying to keep her close.
“The thing I learned early on is, if I got angry with her, it didn’t work, she got angry back,” she says. “Then I tried to approach it from a place of love but I am going to do everything I can to help her.”
“I think that even if you suspect something, trust your instinct as a parent and if your kid gets mad at you, who cares?” she says. “And if you are wrong, you’re wrong, but at least they may not be dead, you may save their life.”
Following Emily’s death, Kennecke took a leave of absence before returning to work earlier this month, and launching a fund called Emily’s Hope to help others pay for the cost of treatment.
There are no words, she says, to accurately describe the tremendous loss.
“There’s a big hole in our family,” Kennecke says.”My kids and my husband are the reason for me going on. What do I do with this loss? Do I let it destroy me? Or do I turn it into a call to action?”