Ashley, the face of PA's latest crisis: Overdose deaths are spiking in pandemic

Kim Strong
York Daily Record

Ashley Gaines-Cannon held a secret until she died.

The girl who had been the star of her high school musical, the valedictorian of a culinary arts school, the mother of four boys, the love of Michael Cannon's life, died on the floor of her Pittsburgh home from a drug overdose.

It was a surprise to many of her friends, including Pennsylvania's lieutenant governor. 

John Fetterman posted a message on Twitter three days after she died: "It is with a broken heart that I share the loss of our dear family friend Ashley to the scourge + disease of addiction."

Overdose deaths are spiking in Pennsylvania, numbers so high that lethal drug consumption may make 2020 the worst year in the state's history.

"We are expecting 2020 to outpace 2019 and 2018. There’s even a chance we’ll surpass 2017, which was the height of overdose deaths for us," said Jennifer Smith, secretary of the state's Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP).

The numbers aren't all in for 2020, but the trail of evidence sweeps across the United States.

More than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred between May 2019 and May 2020, "the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period," according to the CDC. "While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the 2019 novel coronavirus disease pandemic, the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic."

The drug that's finding its way onto coroners' reports most often: fentanyl. Often cut - or added to - another drug, it's powerful and cheap. 

"That really is why the nation as a whole has seen overdose deaths rise," Smith said. "It takes just a tiny amount of that substance to cause death."

Gaines-Cannon's family still awaits toxicology reports to determine what exactly caused her overdose at 35 years old, but her husband believes it was heroin and Xanax, laced with something else, possibly fentanyl.

She became one of the 13 people who die each day in Pennsylvania of an overdose.

"Ashley really represents the face of what this epidemic can do to families, to children. It’s really awful," Fetterman said.

What happened to Ashley?

Michael and Ashley Cannon with their four sons, after the birth of their youngest, Beaux. They had built a life in Pittsburgh, but there was always a secret in their lives: addiction.

Ashley Gaines grew up in East Pittsburgh, a tiny borough in Allegheny County that sits along the Monongahela River. 

Creative and full of life, she earned the lead role in "Hello, Dolly" in her senior year, 2003, at Woodland Hills High School. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called it a "commanding performance."

The actress persona never left Ashley Gaines, according to her husband, Michael Cannon.

"She did an incredible job of masking everything," Cannon said.

He met her at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, then she moved on to Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh, where she graduated at the top of her class despite cocaine use, Cannon said. He knew his girlfriend had experimented in college, but it escalated in cooking school. 

They moved into a neighborhood just outside of Pittsburgh not far from where she was raised and had the first of their four boys. They were busy parents, both working, so they didn’t see each other much. After their second son was born, she had some health problems and started taking pills.

“I can never pinpoint exactly why because that’s what you always want to do. You always want to picture why,” Cannon said. “I was just in the mode of prevent. Prevent anything from happening to the kids. And how can I steer her back on the right path.”

Her abuse disorder came in waves, easing at times, crashing at others. 

"Always just enough ups to give you hope, and that’s kind of what I ran with,” Cannon said.

But more drugs followed, then alcohol, so much so that Cannon calls their fourth son a “miracle child” because his wife's addiction disorder overwhelmed her during and after the pregnancy. By then, she was also taking medication for severe depression and bipolar disorder, Cannon said.

She always tried to hide it.

"She could be in the middle of the floor with one eye open, she would say she was completely sober," Cannon said.

His hope started to run out after Beaux’s birth. He learned from friends, teachers and others how she had been behaving while he was working long days as a flooring installation technician.

Two years ago, he separated from her. The idea of divorce seemed to drive her sobriety for a little while, then one day, Cannon pulled his wife out of a crack house and took custody of the kids. His mother and sister moved from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to help him with the boys: Pierce, now 14, Clark, 8, Niles, 6, and Beaux, 4.

A trip into recovery for her disorder ended with her engagement to another therapy patient, but Cannon still talked to her every day, still trying to protect her. He didn’t know just how bad her disorder had become.

“I didn’t hear about any heroin use until I was standing over her body,” he said.

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Falling into the abyss

Television therapist Dr. Laura Berman is demanding justice after her son died of an apparent overdose. The grieving family believes her son bought drugs from someone on Snapchat.

Joanne Troutman’s relative had been a recovering heroin addict for five years when he was arrested on a minor charge in 2019. It drove him headlong into full addiction again, she said. He lost his nursing job and has since overdosed at least eight times.

Troutman, the president and CEO of United Way of the Greater Susquehanna Valley in Sunbury, shared that story with state legislators earlier this month, illustrating how easily a person with substance abuse disorder can fall into the abyss of their addiction, which is happening with more frequency since COVID-19 safety measures went into place.

The drug crisis in Pennsylvania reached its peak in 2017, then the scourge that destroyed families and communities across the country started to ease in the two years that followed.

There were more systems in place for treatment, education had worked, the overdose-reversal drug naloxone reached the people who could save lives, the label of addiction took on new meaning as a substance abuse disorder, and some families openly shared their horror stories and, in some cases, their triumphs over the disorder.

The pandemic wreaked havoc on that progress.

“We already had to deal with an opioid epidemic with a stimulant crisis layered on top of it," Smith told Pennsylvania legislators. “The pandemic pressed the accelerator” on overdoses.

Isolation for those with substance abuse disorder creates challenges on top of challenges: lack of emotional support, a void of human interaction, and generally poor mental health.

Symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorder "increased considerably" in this country from April to June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, according to the CDC.

The CDC reported in August that 13.3% of people started or increased substance abuse to deal with stress or emotional issues related to COVID-19, and nearly 11% of those surveyed “seriously considered” suicide in the past 30 days.  

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The drug crisis

A bottle of the generic prescription pain medication buprenorphine is seen in a pharmacy. The narcotic drug is used as an alternative to Methadone to help addicts recovering from heroin use. As opioid overdose deaths spike during the pandemic, doctors are asking the federal government to make it easier to prescribe the lifesaving drug.

Fentanyl and meth are the drugs crossing into the United States at high rates today, according to Jeremiah Daley, executive director of Liberty Mid-Atlantic High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

“Those drug traffickers, I think we need mandatory minimums for those bastards, and I would like to see them go away. Set an example. You traffic drugs into our state, into our communities, goodbye for 20 years, see ya," said state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski (D-Wilkes-Barre) in a recent committee hearing with the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

“Persons with substance abuse disorders, for the most part, are our biggest problem in terms of other crimes, like retail thefts, burglaries and break-ins to cars and so forth,” Daley said. “And the sooner we can get those people into treatment, the lower our crime rates will be generally. So, on the one hand, let’s deal with the crime of drug trafficking forcefully. On the other hand, let’s deal with the disease of addiction compassionately and consistently through various treatment programs.”

Daley’s organization, based in Philadelphia, facilitates interagency cooperation among local, state and federal law enforcement to investigate drug traffickers, some using the internet to distribute their goods. A Homeland Security sting in Philadelphia recently uncovered four industrial-grade pill presses, illegally manufacturing stimulants.

“This outlook sounds gloomy,” he said. “And I don’t see an immediate end to it.”


Lt. Gov. John Fetterman lost his friend to an overdose in January. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro sits behind him, here during a press conference in 2019.

In a recent state hearing, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and others offered solutions to the current crisis facing families and communities:

  • Invest in treatment, “especially in rural Pennsylvania.” (Shapiro)
  • Enhance access to medication-assisted treatment, like Naloxone. (Shapiro)
  • Reduce insurance barriers to treatment. (Shapiro)
  • Enforce parity laws that would provide the same access to drug and mental health treatments as are provided for physical ailments. (Shapiro) 
  • Increase access to harm reduction services, such as sterile needle-sharing programs. (Shapiro)
  • Invest in treatment programs that establish strong relationships with those who have abuse disorders. (Joanne Troutman)
  • Pay the treatment providers "a living wage." (Troutman)
  • Improve telehealth access. In rural areas, not everyone has access to the equipment, such as internet and cell service, to get telehealth services. Telehealth has created an easy avenue to treatment in a socially distant environment. (Jennifer Smith)

“It's not to suggest that a lot hasn’t been done … but we all recognize that more needs to be done in this effort,” Shapiro said.

In addition, for crisis support, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357). It is a confidential, free information service, in English and Spanish, for people and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

'I don't have a mommy'

What caused Ashley Gaines-Cannon's overdose death has yet to be determined, but she struggled with a variety of painkillers, drugs and alcohol in her 35 years.

The Cannon and Fetterman families have been friends for about a decade, since Ashley Gaines-Cannon and Gisele Fetterman met in a breastfeeding forum.

“They’re a great family,” said John Fetterman, who is now running for Pat Toomey’s U.S. Senate seat. “I mean, it’s just hard to articulate the tragedy of four boys losing their mother to addiction.” 

Fetterman is advocating for the legalization of marijuana in Pennsylvania, in part because prescription opioids used to treat pain relief are gateway drugs to highly addictive illegal drugs like heroin.

Marijuana offers relief from pain as well. Some research shows marijuana use leads to other drugs, “however, the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Regardless, “there’s no shame in addiction,” Fetterman said. “We don’t shame someone if they have cancer. This is what we need to understand. This is not a moral failing.”

If there is a peace after loss, Michael Cannon is grasping for it.

“I can say that I know that until the moment she passed, she knew I was there for her,” he said. As painful as her loss is, “I can’t let those emotions dictate my actions right now. I have to continue to be that beam of positivity for my kids.”

He once imagined a day that they’d be like a sitcom family - she and her significant other, him and his, their children together, sharing a Thanksgiving dinner, interacting flawlessly.

What he grapples with now is the idea that his four children, especially Beaux, don't have a mom.

The 4-year-old recently went into his grandmother’s room to wake her up because he had a bad dream.

According to Cannon, Beaux said, "I don’t have my mommy. Will you be my mommy?"

Kim Strong can be reached at