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Life lived and lost in the waves of opioid use, remembering Kirstin Zabel

When Kirstin Elizabeth Zabel was born in December 1986, her parents, Donald and Claudia, brought her home to Cartwright Road on Shelter Island. Thirty-one years later she was buried in the cemetery at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church. 

When friends and family describe how Kirstin lived, they speak of how she protected the people she loved, of her artistic flair and her enjoyment of classical music. She loved horses, dogs and cats, cooking, travel and Shelter Island. But Kirstin had only three decades to live a whole life, because in her teens she learned to love drugs as well. 

People die from drug use everywhere, even in idyllic, close-knit communities like Shelter Island. Suffolk County had 342 opioid deaths in 2016. The total for 2017, which is not yet finalized, is expected to be more than 400 — the highest opioid overdose death rate of any county in New York, according to data from the state Department of Health. 

From 2013 to 2017 there were 26 overdoses on Shelter Island, and seven Narcan saves, according to Police Chief Jim Read. When Chief Read and Det. Sgt. Jack Thilberg talk about Shelter Island’s opioid problem, it’s clear that this kind of policing in a place with a year-round population of 2,300 is intimate and personal. 

Chief Read confirmed that the deaths of two Shelter Islanders in the first part of 2018 have had a terrible impact on the community, especially coming after years in which there was one or none. 

Kirstin died in Falmouth, Mass., but her struggle with opioid use also played out on Shelter Island where she, like the other islanders who battle the disease, was well-known to local first responders.


The federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention identifies three waves of opioid deaths in the United States, and Kirstin’s life was lived and lost in the pull of those waves. The first came in the 1990s, as a sharp increase in legal prescriptions for pain killers put highly addictive drugs in the medicine cabinets of many Americans. Kirstin was one of the teenagers who got her hands on somebody else’s prescription. 

The second wave, in 2010, saw deaths from heroin use spike among middle-class white Americans, and Kirstin was among those who developed an opioid use disorder during this period. 

The third wave began in 2013, with synthetic opioids like fentanyl, a deadly substance often combined with heroin to make it more potent and addictive. When Kirstin died in April 2018, numerous attempts to revive her with Narcan failed, an indication that it was likely fentanyl that ended her life. 


When Kirstin was 3, the family moved from Shelter Island to Massachusetts, where her brothers, Blaize and Elliott, were born. The Zabels and the other kids on Carriage Shop Road in East Falmouth ran in a pack that called itself the Carriage Shop Kids. Their friendships became lifelong bonds. 

Leanne Amorim met Kirstin in fifth grade. “We’d sit around and talk and color on this special bench and call it ‘color fun time.’ She moved back and forth from New York and Falmouth, but we remained connected,” Leanne said. “It was a friendship meant to be.” 

When Stephanie McNicol moved to Carriage Shop Road before ninth grade, she and Kirstin became friends immediately. “The first night we met I ended up sleeping over,” she said. “We stayed up, and Claudia said she could hear us laughing all night, which was good because she said she hadn’t heard Kirstin laugh for a while.”

After Kirstin’s parents split up — her parents divorced when she was 10 — she began to spend summers on Shelter Island with her father and was in and out of the Shelter Island School. She had been diagnosed with depression and was struggling in school despite her intelligence and artistic gifts. By 16, she stopped going to school and got her GED. Kirstin’s first waitress job was at Pat and Steve’s, a popular Shelter Island diner owned by Pat and Steve Lenox. Pat remembers Kirstin as a talented artist as well as a good waitress. 

“She drew on everything, the checks, the back of the menus, and she had real talent,” Ms. Lenox said.

When Kirstin called Ms. Lenox to ask for the weekend off so she and her brother Elliott could audition for “American Idol,” Ms. Lenox couldn’t grant the request, since she was already short-handed. Kirstin and Elliott went anyway. “She believed in it so much,” Elliott said. “We were all ready to win, and everyone knew why we were there.” 

But Kirstin lost her nerve at the last minute — and lost her waitress job as well, although Ms. Lenox later rehired her.

Kirstin at age 11. (Courtesy photo)


Over the years, Kirstin worked at many Shelter Island restaurants, including 18 Bay, the Pridwin and Gardiners Bay Country Club. Her ability to make and save money gave her independence and the freedom to travel to Florida, California, Australia and Fiji. At the time she died, she was planning her next trip, to Europe.

Kirstin was godmother to Leanne’s 4-year-old son, Desmond, who called her Auntie Gaga because Kirstin loved Lady Gaga. Kirstin doted on Desmond. “I think if she had found the right person she would have loved having her own child,” Leanne said. “She’d tell me that she met someone and hung out, but she was very nervous about being with someone.”

Kirstin’s increasingly chaotic life made health insurance and consistent medical attention impossible. In the last few years of her life, she was in the grip of a serious addiction, having lost the ability to support herself, to work and to travel. Her life was unraveling and she was afraid of dying from an overdose, since she had come close many times.

According to Kirstin’s mother, Claudia Hendricks, two stints in a state-run rehab center in Massachusetts — one involuntary and one voluntary — didn’t help Kirstin get better. 

“They didn’t do anything with her other than not give her drugs,” Ms. Hendricks said. “They were focused on her illness and not on her mental state, and bipolar disorder runs in my family.”

Kirstin had been close to her father, and when a heart attack left him brain damaged and living in a nursing home, she felt she’d lost him, another blow she had to endure. Donald Zabel died in April 2017.


For much of the summer of 2017, Kirstin was jailed in Sag Harbor on drug-related charges and could not post the $4,000 bail and was held in the Suffolk County jail until October. Ms. Hendricks said this period was a kind of relief, since at least she knew that while her daughter was behind bars, she was less likely to die from an overdose. 

In what turned out to be her last days, Kirstin lived with her mother in Falmouth. They had a chance to talk. “With daughters, you go through a lot,” Ms. Hendricks said. “In the end I did get to hear her tell me she loved me.” 

On the day she died, Kirstin, who used to make hot dog roll-ups for Leanne when they were kids, texted her friend that she had made steak au poivre for dinner. A little while later, Ms. Hendricks found her daughter dying from an overdose in the home they shared. Kirstin died after paramedics tried repeatedly to save her with Narcan. 

Two weeks ago, on the three-month anniversary of her death, a group of Kirstin’s family and friends got together on Shelter Island to visit her grave and remember her. As they drove past Camp Quinipet, someone spotted a large Slip ’n Slide stretched out on the hilly front lawn of the day camp. 

“We all laughed because we knew if Kirstin were with us, she would have been on that Slip ’n Slide in a second,” Leanne said. 

Ms. Hendricks agreed. “She could make anything into an adventure.” 

‘It becomes all of our problem’ 

Shelter Island Police Chief Jim Read and Det. Sgt. Jack Thilberg spoke with Times Review recently about opioid addiction on Shelter Island and how the police department is responding.

“I’m not saying this is a massive problem for Shelter Island, but for those families, it is a massive problem,” Chief Read said. “It tears up the lives of everybody around them.”

“It becomes all of our problem,” said Det. Sgt. Thilberg. “There is an impact across the community.”

Shelter Island police and emergency medical services volunteers carry Narcan, a drug that, when administered promptly, can block the effects of an opioid overdose. Since 2013, there have been seven Narcan “saves” on the Island. Using inhalers to administer the life-saving drug, rather than injections, has made it easier and more efficient to bring people back from death’s door. Shelter Island EMS, as part of a pilot program run by New York State, became one of the groundbreaking EMS units in the state to employ the inhalers.

When people struggle with addiction, they may go through periods of sobriety only to relapse. “It becomes cyclical,” Chief Read said. “We make arrests to try to break the cycle. Often the family is hoping that we can arrest the person because, in custody, at least they can be monitored. We will make every effort to make an arrest, to try to get the person going in a better direction.”

The police department now administers a prescription drug dropoff program, initiated by the Shelter Island Pharmacy, as a way of removing leftover prescription opioids from homes where they could get into the wrong hands, or find their way into the aquifer if disposed of improperly.

Det. Thilberg said the police department took in 160 pounds of drugs this year, or about 10 banker’s boxes full of prescription medication over the course of a year. The program has been in place for two years and the volume of drugs turned over has increased year to year.

Photo caption: Friends for life: Kirstin Zabel (left) with Stephanie McNicol in 2007. (Courtesy photo) 

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 This article is a part of The East End News Project. Three East End news organizations — the Times Review Media Group
newspapers, the Press News Group and The Sag Harbor Express — have joined together with Stony Brook University’s journalism program in a unique collaboration that focuses on the opioid epidemic across the region. If you can help by telling your story, please contact us at [email protected].


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