By Taylor Knopf, NC Health News
Debbie Dalton was sitting at her kitchen table in Cornelius writing Christmas cards the week after Thanksgiving 2016 when she received a devastating phone call.
The caller ID said “Hunter,” the name of her then-23-year-old son who recently graduated college and moved to Raleigh to work at Citrix.
But it wasn’t Hunter calling. His roommate was on the other end and said Hunter had overdosed.
He lived for seven days hooked up to life support machines inside the hospital. Hunter overdosed on cocaine laced with fentanyl and was brain dead.
“I could have held his hand forever, but he wouldn’t want that,” Dalton said.
So she decided to take action. She joined the many North Carolina parents suffering the loss of a child who are fighting to prevent more drug overdose deaths.
Attorney General Josh Stein, who has prioritized the opioid issue, recently invited parents from across the state to his Raleigh office to share what they’ve been doing to combat overdose deaths in their communities.
Most of the efforts revolve around prevention education and helping people get substance abuse treatment services. The majority of the parents present belong to a recently formed lobbying group called ROAR to push for opioid legislation.
In June, Gov. Roy Cooper signed the HOPE Act, a law aimed at stopping the flow of prescription drugs into the illegal market. The HOPE Act comes with the promise of more money for addiction treatment and recovery services.
It also gives law enforcement new tools to investigate drug crimes, including the ability to look at the Controlled Substances Reporting System, a state-managed prescription database. That provision proved to be controversial.
Though ROAR didn’t play a key role in writing the legislation, founder Mike Cannon said he’s pleased to see lawmakers setting aside partisan differences and passing legislation intended to fight the opioid crisis.
Cannon, from Wilson, started ROAR after the loss of his son, Jonathan. He formed the group so he and other parents could speak at campaign events and legislative committee meetings without jeopardizing the nonprofit status of their other foundations. His hope is that when he’s addressing a group of lawmakers in Raleigh, there will be dozens of parents outside “roaring.”
“Once you go through what we went through, the loss of a child, there’s an emotion,” he said. “We think of ROAR as an emotion more than a name.”
Families feel trapped and hopeless after the loss of a child, he said. So the purpose behind ROAR is to be involved in legislative change, but also pull these people together and give them a voice.
“It’s like a fraternity that no one wants to be a member of,” Cannon said. “I would give my own life to not be a part of this club.”
ROAR is secondary to his nonprofit called JCans, named for his son, who died at 26 years old from a drug overdose in 2015.
Cannon and his wife Becky dedicated the nonprofit to helping people who struggle with addiction get treatment and into long-term recovery. And it started the day of their son’s funeral.
“If you’re in his circle of friends and have the same problem, we will do everything we can to help,’” Cannon told the crowd who gathered to bury his son.
He had three young people show up at his house later that night asking for help. Since then, the Cannons have raised around $20,000 and helped put about 250 people through treatment.
The Good Samaritan Law
Frankie Andrews got involved with the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse after losing two of his nephews to drug overdoses, one in 2006, the other in 2010.
He said one of the boys died among friends who were too scared to call for help for fear of getting in trouble with the law. Andrews said he’s thankful for the Good Samaritan Law, which went into effect in North Carolina in 2015. It legally protects those who seek help for someone using an illegal substance.
But Andrews said many people still don’t know about the law. He is working to change that.
He tried speaking out about what happened to his first nephew back in 2006, but people in his community of Pilot Mountain didn’t think the problem was widespread.
“I let my frustrations get the best of me and I laid the thing to rest after about two years of trying,” Andrews said.
“And basically had the mentality that this happened to my family one time, there’s no way it could happen to me again. So why should I care if nobody else cares?”
Four years after his first nephew died, the boy’s brother also had a fatal overdose.
That’s when Andrews became the area director for the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse. He speaks in schools about the dangers of prescription drugs and talks about what his family has been through. He connects people to resources and talks to legislators about the problem and what can be done to stop it.
“What’s really been a travesty for our family is really coming full circle now and a lot of people are being helped,” Andrews said.
A music video
Each family has its way of honoring the lost member and preventing others from the same loss.
Debbie Dalton and her husband re-enacted the day in November they received that heartbreaking phone call in a music video called “HD Life,” in memory of their son Hunter Dalton. The video features statistics about fatal drug overdoses, photos from Hunter’s hospital stay and a song his buddy wrote for him.
Dalton shares Hunter’s story and the dangers of recreational drug use to anyone who will listen in schools, at businesses and at rotary clubs.
She said she knew her son and his friends used recreational drugs, such as marijuana. But she never dreamed it would ever lead to a fatal overdose.
She didn’t know about fentanyl. And Dalton said it’s unlikely her son knew these other drugs were being cut with fentanyl.
“Information is the reason my son is not here,” she said. “That’s what we are telling people, just because it’s a trusted source doesn’t mean it’s a trusted drug.”
Not knowing what else might in an illegal drug is a real problem. The Harm Reduction Coalition has been giving out fentanyl test strips to active drug users so they can protect themselves.
“Am I going to get through to every person? No,” Dalton said. “But there’s a big difference between ‘drugs are bad for you’ and ‘drugs will kill you.’ I think they listen to that.”