Chris Ramirez remembers nearly every moment of the day his 17-year-old son died from fentanyl poisoning.
He asked the first responder to repeat the words “Your son is dead” three times before falling to the ground, weeping.
That afternoon, he’d left his 14-year-old daughter at the nail salon with a house key and a credit card and rushed to his son’s friend’s home. He fought to get up the stairs, but it was an active crime scene. His son, Laird, was dead in the guest bedroom.
Laird had died from fentanyl poisoning 12 hours earlier, paramedics told him. His parents say they later learned there was a lethal amount of fentanyl in a pill Laird took thinking it was Percocet, a prescription painkiller.
His father has lived two guilt-ridden months since the Hough High School rising junior took his last breath. Now, he’s dedicating himself to activism and education about the deadly substance found trafficked and laced in drugs in Charlotte and across the country.
“There is no demographic that’s safe, there’s no household that is safe. No matter how good a parent you are, or how secure you think your family life is,” he said at a panel in Charlotte Wednesday afternoon.
In July, an investigation by The Charlotte Observer found multiple students at Hough High have been in drug rehab programs. They bought and used drugs in the school’s bathrooms and cafeteria, they told their parents.
A small amount of fentanyl — about the tip of a pencil — can lead to a fatal overdose.
While Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools says Hough High is not an outlier, it is not clear how widespread student overdose deaths are. Cases typically reach the public only when parents choose to speak out or police arrest dealers.
At Atrium Health, Dr. Chris Griggs has seen 354 overdoses in the emergency department so far this year. At least 10 patients were under 18 — but they were just the ones who made it to the hospital, he said.
Hood Hargett Breakfast Club’s discussion on “Navigating the Fentanyl Crisis in Our Schools” featured speakers from Medic and Atrium Health at a special event Wednesday hosted by Atrium Health. The organization, sponsored by Hood Hargett insurance agency, focuses on business development and networking. It hosts keynote speakers regularly in Charlotte and recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. The breakfast series often features nationally-prominent speakers from a range of business fields, sports, politics and media.
Fentanyl danger to teens
Teenagers and young adults have always engaged in risky behavior, panelists agreed. But the landscape is not the same as it was years ago.
“There’s no room for safe experimentation anymore,” said Allison Christine, chief administrative officer at The Blanchard Institute, a rehab center in Charlotte.
“Boone’s Farm and hippie lettuce from the farm in Wisconsin is long gone. Everything is laced.”
Substance use and mental health disorders are “equal opportunity destroyers,” she said. And the fentanyl circulating through the area creates a lethal mix.
On the heels of Laird’s death on July 1, Cornelius Police arrested a man charged in June on a drug offense — death by distribution. That same month, in neighboring Gaston County, police arrested a 21-year-old suspected of selling drugs that led to fatal overdose deaths of a 16- and 17-year-old.
The dangers and prevalence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, are widely known to first responders, those working in substance abuse treatment and, now, some community members.
Paramedics administer NARCAN, or Naloxone, an average of seven times a day locally, said Mecklenburg EMS Deputy Director John Studneck, which is an increase of 20% compared with 18 months ago.
“Everyone needs NARCAN,” said Kelsey Pierre, Atrium’s addiction services medical director. Given the scope of the opioid epidemic, she wants every home to have the life-saving nasal spray that reverses overdoses.
A CMS employee at Wednesday’s event said the district is working to add NARCAN to AED boxes in school hallways, but will not pass out the medicine.
In March, the FDA approved the spray for over-the-counter, non-prescription use. A limited amount of free overdose rescue kits are also available though North Carolina’s Harm Reduction Coalition.
In previous reporting by the Observer, parents paint a picture of increasing access by students to fentanyl and other drugs, which authorities say are often laced with small amounts of the opioid.
The story prompted Wednesday’s panel, said Jenn Snyder Gibson, Hood Hargett’s Breakfast Club’s Executive Director.
“I remember reading this article and one of the subheadings said, ‘Rehab is the new summer camp for our students,’” she said. “...It just hurt my heart so much.”
School district officials did not answer the Observer’s direct questions about the scope of issues at Hough High, including how many students have recently been found with drugs or died of drug overdoses. CMS doesn’t track student admissions to drug rehab unless parents alert the school.
Often, Pierre said, tense conversations about substance abuse can get tied in to broader conversations about teen behavior or be ignored altogether.
“It’s a community disease that the community needs to help (solve),” she said.
It can be difficult to think of a 12- or 15-year-old using drugs or being labeled as an addict, she said. But conversations need to catch up to reality.