In the four and a half years since Jeremiah Lindemann created a public mapping website to remember victims of the opioid crisis, he’s received dozens of other requests.
But none of them persuaded him to launch a new map. Until COVID-19.
Lindemann, a software engineer who mines data and builds maps for cities and counties across the world, started the opioid overdose website in honor of his younger brother, J.T., who died at age 23 after struggling with an addiction to Oxycontin.
The site was Lindemann’s way of processing grief and making sure his brother was not forgotten. The project resonated with other families — the website has 2,300 photos and tributes submitted by people across the globe. Each lost loved one is represented by a blue dot, a reminder that no community is immune.
People have asked Lindemann to take up similar projects for other diseases, including cancer. Those requests seemed unwieldy, and not as cohesive.
But the pandemic felt different. “This changed everyone’s lives,” he said. And the way people talk about the novel coronavirus holds some similarities to the country’s opioid crisis, he said.
“People say, ‘It’s only affecting people with preexisting conditions. It’s only affecting old people.’ Why is there a lack of empathy?”
Those words remind Lindemann of some he’s heard before, ones that make him cringe: “They are just a bunch of druggies.”
By pretending COVID-19 is a disease for “others,” the “value of human life goes away,” Lindemann said. “The map helps bring it back.”
Another reason for his new project is that he wants to give victims’ relatives a chance to say goodbye, especially as stories pour in across the world of funerals indefinitely postponed and COVID-19 patients who are not allowed visitors even as they’re dying. “You feel like you weren’t really able to say goodbye,” Lindemann said. “People are locked up in their houses and they weren’t able to share their stories.”
The first entry on the COVID-19 map, which went live about a week ago, is José Dias Palitot, who died March 29 in Brazil. “Such a big heart. Animal friendly. Helped me a lot.” To Lindemann, Palitot was a friend of a friend.
Barbara, of Massachusetts, died April 4. “Accidentally hilarious, kind and welcoming. One Thanksgiving she baked the oven mitts along with the turkey,” it says under a photo of a smiling woman holding a baby.
Anyone can upload a photo and a written tribute to the site. A user-friendly form asks people to fill in the blanks, including city, date of death and a space to answer, “Why is this person special?”
Each post is validated by volunteers before it’s published on the website.
The map has just one Colorado tribute so far, a tear-jerking salute to 21-year-old Cody Lyster, written by his sister. “He did everything for anyone, and he was taken from my family too early,” she wrote, adding that the Colorado Mesa University baseball player hoped to one day become a police officer like his father.
“I didn’t realize how many lives he touched until it was too late,” she wrote. “Him and I would drive around in his car and sing songs and just do things brothers and sisters would do.”
The website is also collecting stories of recovery on a separate map. “There are positive stories too,” it says. “At a community level this can help bridge our isolation and connect people.”
The “Coronavirus Stories of Loss and Recovery” project lives on the website of GISCorps, which is a nonprofit created by software engineers who use their tech skills to volunteer for good. Corps volunteers have helped with hurricane and tornado relief around the world by mapping resources and clean-up efforts.
Lindemann, who works in the Louisville office of the software company Esri, is also focused on coronavirus during his day job. The company is helping local governments respond to the pandemic by mapping inventories of personal protective equipment, disbursement of essential staff and plans for field hospitals, such as redesigning a hotel into a temporary hospital to handle COVID-19 patients.
It’s been 13 years since Lindemann lost his brother, who was the first entry on the opioid map. J.T. Lindemann loved baseball and taught himself to play the drums and guitar, writing his lyrics on fast-food napkins.
Lindemann says knowing that his brother’s story lives online in the map project has helped him heal and made him feel that they’re still connected. So has time.
“I think I’ve done a better job of grieving him and letting thoughts back in my own head about him,” he said. “Hopefully all these families can do the same.”