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Shawn Vestal: A sad end to a difficult life provides a ‘miracle’ for five families

He was found in the bathroom at the STA Plaza, unresponsive and with drug paraphernalia suggesting an overdose.

When he was taken to Multicare Deaconess Hospital on Aug. 20, workers there had no way to identify him. He was admitted as John Doe 57.

The 57th man to show up at the hospital this year as a cipher, a mystery, a human unknown.

He was identified in fairly short order as Joshua Conklin, a man with a recent history of street homelessness in Spokane, and a long pattern of addiction to heroin and methamphetamine, and, perhaps, untreated mental illness. A man who never woke up again, his life ending after 33 short years with an anonymous overdose in a public bathroom, thousands of miles from his family in New York.

But Conklin was more than his worst times. More than a John Doe OD. He was Kirsten Zurfluh’s friend and special charge, and she has worked to give his life and death meaning, to organize funeral arrangements. Zurfluh is a 36-year-old Spokane woman who works, both professionally and on her own time, with homeless people, and she had formed a bond with Conklin over the past year. She’s been by his side – literally and figuratively – when there was no one else.

“She is amazing,” said Jalon Conklin, Joshua’s sister who lives in rural New York state. “She’s like an angel sent to us.”

As a final act for Conklin, Zurfluh helped the family arrange the donation of his organs. He was a universal donor – compatible with all blood types – and five of his organs were donated successfully to recipients around the country.

“His heart and liver stayed in the Pacific Northwest. His lungs and kidneys went to the East Coast,” Zurfluh said. “I choose to believe God really had a hand in making this tragedy bless the lives of other people. We were all praying for a miracle. Joshua became five other families’ miracles.”

‘Never good enough’

Conklin grew up in Deposit, New York, a small town near the Pennsylvania border. His father died suddenly when he was 3 years old; the death occurred right as Joshua’s father had been scolding him for something, and Jalon Conklin said he carried guilt about that his whole life.

“Joshua kind of blamed himself for our dad’s death even though it wasn’t his fault,” she said. “He would try and fill that emptiness of not having a father with anything.”

As a boy, he was into music and art – not a sporty, popular kid, she said. He began using drugs in high school, and by the time he left school he had entered a cycle of addiction and rehab, Jalon said.

He did the kinds of things that addicts often do. He exhausted his family’s finances and goodwill. He got in trouble with the law. He kept using. He seemed to both seek and reject help.

“He always felt like there was something missing – he wasn’t good enough or he had failed,” his sister said. “He never felt good enough. He never felt accepted. He never felt part of the family, though we tried.”

More than a decade ago, he followed a woman he was seeing out West, and ended up living in Coeur d’Alene for a while. Zurfluh said he had a clean period then, working as a car salesman, but eventually began using drugs again.

Jalon Conklin said most of the people in her family had stopped giving him money, but would help with specific items when they could. His grandmother, however, would often give him money and other help – up to bailing him out of the Spokane County Jail not long ago when he was arrested on a drug-possession charge.

Conklin’s sister said he was getting enough money to have lived a sober, stable life. She said she doesn’t believe that addiction is a disease, but a choice – and she believes he chose addiction and homelessness, or at least gave up on the idea that he could overcome them.

“He kind of lost all hope,” she said. “He would make a lot of comments that he wasn’t going to live to 34.”

‘You have to be clean’

Zurfluh met Conklin last November on a sidewalk outside the House of Charity. She had been checking on another homeless man, and he approached her.

“Can you help me?” he asked.

What he wanted, she said, was help getting home to New York.

Zurfluh went to work seeing if she could help. It’s what she does – keeping in contact with a handful of people whose lives are on the desperate edge; she visits them on the streets, arranges help when she can, checks jail rosters and hospitals when they’re missing, tries to let them know they are not forgotten.

Conklin was not the first of these men who died while Zurfluh was trying to help them. Not the first to lose their lives to addiction. In 2017, she was befriending and assisting another young man with a hardcore heroin addiction – Steven Hackett, who was a frequent panhandler outside the Dutch Bros. coffee shop on North Division – when he was found dead of an overdose in an alley.

“It just breaks my heart, really, seeing people hurt and knowing other people have given up on them,” she said. “I think that God has really worked through my heart. … It’s a calling, I think. It’s where my heart has led me.”

Not long ago, she was the first to discover another man she tried to watch over, dead of an overdose. That happened at virtually the same time that she heard that Conklin had been admitted to the hospital.

“In my line of work I don’t have a lot of wins,” she wrote in a message last year that was, ironically, about one of her wins: getting one of the men she worked with off drugs for a year. “No miracles. A lot of setbacks, 99% relapse. It’s an uphill battle every day.”

After first meeting Conklin, she put out an appeal on Facebook and raised almost enough to buy him a $237 ticket back home. But his family wanted him to be clean first.

Jalon said she last spoke to her brother around Christmas of last year.

“I was like, ‘Why don’t you come home?’ ” she said. “‘Josh, you’re welcome to come home. You just have to be clean.’”

Zurfluh said Conklin told her he wanted to quit, but didn’t act like it was possible. She had worked to connect him with a program for medication-assisted treatment, but he couldn’t make that work.

The last time she saw him before his overdose, she had taken him to the emergency room to get a referral for an overnight medical care program at the House of Charity to deal with complications from his diabetes. It was a difficult day; he was prickly and argumentative. He seemed suspicious, a bit paranoid.

She dropped him off at the shelter, after saying “I love you, bud.”

“Love you too,” he answered.

‘It broke my heart’

Conklin was found and taken to the hospital on Aug. 20. Zurfluh heard about his admission and went to his side shortly thereafter – where she was saddened to see that he wore a patient identification wrist band that read “John Doe 57.”

She posted about it on Facebook, and many people incorrectly assumed that the designation indicated that 57 unidentified deaths had occurred on the streets here this year. What it meant was 57 men have been admitted to the hospital without initial means of identification; it doesn’t mean they remain unidentified.

Zurfluh understands why the hospital had to use that designation. Later, when she asked them to change it, she was told they had to keep the initial identification as part of the record. It’s important for patient safety that the hospital create and maintain a single record for a patient’s care.

“I asked them to change his name badge,” she said. “It broke my heart. They all called him Joshua, they all knew who he was. But I wished they would have changed it.”

She coordinated the organ donations with his family, which she saw as a way to give positive meaning to Conklin’s sad end.

“His passing has not been about him overdosing, but about him saving people after all that,” she said.

She also raised money online for his cremation. Then Hennessey Funeral Home and Crematory volunteered to pay the cost of cremation and transporting the cremains back to New York, where Joshua will be placed next to his father’s grave. Because of that gift, the almost $1,600 Zurfluh raised will go toward a headstone and cost of a service.

If there’s anything left, Jalon Conklin wants to do something for homeless people in Spokane. Maybe buy them some food. Maybe some socks and hand warmers.

“She knows that winter is coming,” Zurfluh said, “and winter is hard in Spokane.”