When Paul Francs Duffy II got a call that another person was brought to the emergency room after an overdose, he would put on his suit and head to the hospital. Duffy, as a peer support specialist, would offer support to survivors — and encourage them to seek treatment, just like he had.
But for a time, even as he worked to help other addicts, Duffy was quietly struggling with his own sobriety.
"That's the insanity of addiction, right?" Gwen Dudley, Duffy’s partner, told Fox News. "Duffy knew from his job how dangerous this was, but he thought he had it under control."
The last time Dudley saw Duffy alive, they were arguing about him going to get treatment.
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Paul Duffy II was a loving, devoted partner and father, Gwen Dudley says. (Courtesy of Gwen Dudley )
"He thought he might lose his job," she said. "He was fearful to reach out and admit that he had been using and get help."
"The stigma, even for people in recovery, it’s strong," Dudley, herself a recovering addict, said.
Duffy, 32, died May 2, 2021.
"He passed away due to a fentanyl poisoning, which is what I refer to it as, because it is," Dudley told Fox News.
'He saved people's lives'
Since Duffy's death, Dudley has fought to end the shame associated with addiction in hopes that fewer people will silently suffer until it's too late to seek help. She's convinced stigma prevented her "soulmate" from seeking help.
"Addiction doesn't discriminate. It doesn't have a face," Dudley said. "It is everybody."
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Duffy, who went by his last name, was born and raised in Annapolis, Maryland where Dudley and her son still live. Like so many others, Duffy got hooked on opioids through a legitimate prescription — he'd initially been given OxyContin in high school for a back injury, Dudley told Fox News.
But when prescription opioids became unaffordable, Duffy turned to a cheaper and more accessible option: heroin. Later, his drug of choice became cocaine and other amphetamine-like substances, though he would still use opioids to come down from the stimulants.
Duffy was first introduced to opioids in high school when he was prescribed OxyContin for a back injury. (Courtesy of Gwen Dudley )
Dudley met Duffy in recovery almost five years ago. He'd been clean for about a year, but had intermittent relapses, with his longest period of sobriety stretching four years.
"Duffy was charismatic, he was funny," Dudley said. "He was giving and loving and vivacious and had a lust for life that most people don't."
The two quickly built a life together and had their son, Luca, who is now 3 years old. While in recovery, Duffy was focused on physical health and was passionate about helping others.
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Eventually, Duffy got a job as a peer support specialist for the Anne Arundel County Health Department in Maryland, a position created in part of the county's effort to battle the fentanyl crisis.
"He saved people's lives," Dudley said. "I was so proud of him."
"He was so amazed to be able to do that as a job with everything he'd been through," she added. "Turned his pain into purpose."
'Addiction doesn't discriminate'
Early in 2021, Duffy's mental health began to turn. The couple's hectic work schedules became even busier with a toddler — and Dudley's father died of pancreatic cancer.
Duffy died after he unknowingly took drugs laced with fentanyl. (Courtesy of Gwen Dudley)
"I was definitely aware that Duffy was struggling," she said. "He was very depressed."
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Duffy sought out a therapist who he ultimately didn’t connect with. Instead, he turned to alcohol, thinking it was a substance he had control over. Soon, Duffy was abusing drugs again after nearly three clean years.
Addiction is "never what you think it looks like," Dudley said. "It stems from trauma, it stems from mental health issues, it stems from pain."
"He tried to stop, but he couldn’t," she told Fox News. "He was essentially using against his will."
After two months, Duffy promised he would get help after just one more score.
But he never came home.
Duffy unknowingly bought drugs laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50-100 times stronger than morphine, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
Dudley said Duffy knew about the dangers of fentanyl from his job but was "essentially using against his will." (Courtesy of Gwen Dudley)
"Fentanyl is terrifying," Dudley said. "It keeps me up at night. It makes my stomach turn."
Dudley was headed out with Duffy's mother to look for her partner when she received a call from the hospital. Duffy had been found hours after overdosing and was still unconscious since no one with him had Narcan.
Duffy was on life support for three days before doctors declared him brain-dead due to a lack of oxygen. He was taken off life support two days later.
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She reflected on Duffy's reluctance to seek help. He was afraid he'd be judged for his addiction — something Dudley considers a sickness.
"To treat this as some type of moral failing to me is mind-boggling," she said. "It's really a medical issue."
"We all need to know what fentanyl is, what it's in, and educate the people around us because it's a public health crisis," Dudley added.
Drug overdose deaths surpassed 100,000 for the first time in U.S. history in 2021, according to the CDC. Over 64,000 of those deaths were due to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
"This is coming in over the borders," Dudley said. "The border policies are failing."
"And I don't want to make it political, but it's just a fact," she added.
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Dudley has dedicated her time to dismantling stigma surrounding addiction so others struggling might seek help sooner. (Courtesy of Gwen Dudley )
'Heroic in his own way'
Dudley, aiming to end the stigma and make people more comfortable about seeking treatment, now works remotely as a national outreach coordinator for Ascend Recovery Center in West Palm Beach. She uses TikTok as a platform to raise awareness about the dangers of fentanyl.
As her son gets older, "I'm going to let him know that his dad was sick," Dudley said. "That he was heroic in his own way and saved lives, but that he struggled with this illness and explain fentanyl to him."
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Though she still grieves, Duffy's death has brought Dudley a new sense of purpose.
"I would thank him for believing in my strength before I did," she told Fox News. "And showing me how to help people from the heart and not care what other people think because of the greater good."
"It's what allows me now to bring meaning to his death and take that spirit with me and help other people," Dudley said.
Teny Sahakian is an Associate Producer/Writer for Fox News. Follow Teny on Twitter at @tenysahakian.