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PHOENIX (Talk Now AZ) – No parent should have to bury a child. But with an alarming number of Arizona teens dying after accidentally overdosing on fentanyl in counterfeit pills, it’s happening all too often. It happened to Shari Dukes. Her son, Ethan, was just 16. He had just been accepted as a volunteer for Teen Lifeline’s crisis hotline and had big plans for his life. He was going to become a lawyer and then a judge. He wanted to build a family. One pill changed everything.
It was nearly three years ago – February 2019 -- that Ethan said goodnight to his mom for the last time. Of course, she had no idea it was the last time and could not have fathomed what happened next.
“And then the world flipped.”
“I woke up in the morning and kind of started my routine,” Shari recalled. “Something didn’t feel right. I found him in his bed, looking like he was just sound asleep …. And then the world flipped.”
It would be three months before she learned what killed her only child.
“One pill with low-dose hydrocodone and 2 milligrams of fentanyl,” she said. “He pretty much died instantly.”
One pill can kill
You’ve undoubtedly seen and heard the phrase “one pill can kill.” It might sound like hyperbole, but it’s not.
Two milligrams is a tiny amount, but the Drug Enforcement Agency says it’s “a potentially lethal dose” of fentanyl. Picture a sugar cube. That’s 4,000 milligrams. Let the math sink in.
Fentanyl is an extremely powerful synthetic opioid that’s about 100 times stronger than morphine. And it’s cheap. “Fentanyl is being mixed in with other illicit drugs to increase the potency of the drug, sold as powders and nasal sprays, and increasingly pressed into pills made to look like legitimate prescription opioids.” Dealers are now making their fake pills in pastel colors; they look like candy. Looks can be deceiving. And deadly.
It can happen to anyone
“Ethan was just one of those amazingly big-hearted, gracious, athletic, gifted [kids],” Shari said. “He really had a heart for services, really enjoyed life – easygoing, had kind of a zany spirit. He got along with pretty much everybody … and always had a positive attitude – very resilient.”
It’s not the description you might expect of a child who died of a drug overdose. But that’s the problem. Many people have a dangerous misconception about who takes fentanyl. Deadly overdoses happen every day. To somebody else. Other people’s kids – “those kids.”
“There’s no ‘those kids’ anymore,” Shari said. “Don’t say, ‘It’s not my kid,.’ because it wasn’t my kid either. And it is my kid - who’s dead.”
“Be vigilant and aware.”
“I think as parents, we need to be vigilant and aware,” Shari continued.
She said looking back, something Ethan said to her the night he died might have been a clue about his choice to take a pill. “He wanted to get a good night’s sleep, is what he told me,” she explained. “I did not equate that – him saying that to me – that he might have taken something to get a good night’s sleep.”
She does not know where he got the pill, but Shelly Mowery of Talk Now AZ says they are easy for teens to buy. A tap or two in a social media app is all it takes. “Parents don’t realize that there is a lot of drug-selling activity on those social media apps,” Mowrey said.
“It’s super easy. It’s just like ordering a pizza, said Eden Neville, whose older brother died after taking one pill, just like Ethan. Alex Neville had just turned 14.
“Talk Now AZ strongly encourages parents to monitor and check their kids’ cell phones at least two times a week,” Mowrey said.
Shari agrees. “[Parents] need to remember that they own those phones, not the kids,” she said. “And they should be checking those phones. And they should be putting some really clear guidelines on what the expectations are in terms of if they’re going to have a Snapchat or an Instagram, or even texting – whatever they have. … [Parents] need to be very mindful that social media is so powerful.”
Mowrey suggests creating a contract between you and your child that lays out what they can and cannot do with their phones and what access they will be expected to give you.
Spotting something suspicious
Monitoring your child’s cellphone only helps if you know and understand what you’re seeing. That’s probably emojis. Lots of emojis. That’s how kids on social media communicate, but do you know what they’re saying? Like everything else, the language and codes change, but the Drug Enforcement Administration recently put out a guide to help parents and caregivers decipher what they see on their kids’ phones.
One emoji to watch for in particular is the electric plug. (🔌) It could mean your teen is “plugged in” and chatting with a drug dealer. Keep an eye out for 🍁, as well. The DEA says it’s a “universal emoji for drugs.”
The DEA’s list is not all-inclusive, but it’s a start. And there is something parents need to keep in mind.
“Emojis, on their own, should not be indicative of illegal activity,” the DEA says. “But coupled with a change in behavior, change in appearance, or significant loss/increase in income should be a reason to start an important conversation.”
It’s a conversation that should start in elementary school and continue all the way into your child’s young adult years, Mowrey says.
Shari believes kids need to look out for each other, as well.
See something? Say something.
“If you see a friend going down a path, speak up,” she said. “Call their parents if you see them taking a drug. Say, ‘Buddy, I’m not going to allow this. I care too much about you as a friend, so I’m going to tell your family.’”
“No one said anything to me,” she continued. “Someone had to have known that he had made that choice that night.”
Just like she would like kids to talk to each other and be brave enough to get a trusted grownup involved if they see a potential problem, Shari says adults should be supportive and nurturing. Always. The relationship between teens and adults can be delicate, and there’s no room for negativity. We can’t have our kids hesitate to come forward because they are afraid of how we might react. They need to know that parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives are safe spaces for them.
Shari has no way of knowing if the pill Ethan took was his first or if he had tried one before. It doesn’t matter because no two pills are alike. Some might be loaded with fentanyl. Some might have none. Each one is a life-or-death gamble.
“It’s like playing Russian roulette,” said Shelly Mowrey of Talk Now AZ, which exists to help parents like you keep your kids safe. “I’ve had parents tell me their child took a pill with enough fentanyl to kill four people in it. You just never know what’s in these pills.”
Fentanyl does not discriminate
Counterfeit pills containing fentanyl are dangerous - to everyone. Drugs do not discriminate and dealers do not care to whom they sell. Money is their bottom line. The menace that is fentanyl is not somebody else’s problem. It’s not an Arizona problem. This affects all of us.
“Fentanyl is the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram says on the agency’s fentanyl awareness page. “Fentanyl is everywhere. From large metropolitan areas to rural America, no community is safe from this poison. We must take every opportunity to spread the word to prevent fentanyl-related overdose death and poisonings from claiming scores of American lives every day.”
That’s why the DEA created its “The Faces of Fentanyl” exhibit. Ethan is part of it.
Shari shares her story and her son with people hoping that they – other parents, grandparents, and friends – don’t have to live with what she does every day. “Nothing is going to bring my child back,” she said. “I’ve worked hard trying to honor the love I have for my son because of how he lived. People are so focused on his death, but it’s really his life and how he lived that motivates me to talk and be open and expressive about what parents need to know.”
And what they need to know, Shari says, is that counterfeit pills are a severe problem and a genuine threat to our children.
“No one can fathom that your child will die,” she explained. “Parents just need to get real that this could happen. It’s happening to people every day. It’s happening in every walk of life.”