My Son Did Not Die in Vain: A Story of Addiction & Saving Lives

    At this writing, it is coming up on six years when I said to my son as we hugged, “Love you, bud!” He replied, “Love you, too, Dad.” And he was out the door. Our last words. It seems like an eternity. It seems like yesterday.

    Anyone who ever met Greg, from the time he was born into adulthood, would always describe him in one word: “sweet.” As a youngster, he was chosen for an advanced educational program. He enjoyed cartooning. He played the trumpet. He loved puzzles and was quite good at them. Greg played several sports. His two loves were ice hockey and baseball. He was never the first one picked and didn’t have the natural athletic ability of others, but would always end up outworking everyone else. One year as an ice hockey goalie, he had the lowest goals against average on an undefeated team, yet was left off the all-star team. The other goalies just happened to look more athletic. Later on, as his baseball coach, I used to say, “With the game on the line, I want the ball hit to Greg.” His hard work typically led him to him to being an all-star.

    Along the way, Greg did what many young people do: He pushed boundaries and limits. He also experimented — first with alcohol, then with mushrooms and weed. While in high school, cocaine came into the picture. Late in his senior year he confessed his substance use to his mother and me. Greg entered his first rehab program, a two-week stint, following graduation. His mother and I had an inkling he had been experimenting with alcohol and weed, which was concerning — but the fact he had been using cocaine was both surprising and even more frightening. Since Greg had first participated in the middle school D.A.R.E. prevention program, we had discussed alcohol and drug use openly. At the time, I told Greg that I was a recovering alcoholic, and knew that he was genetically predisposed to addiction issues. While all of this was going on, Greg had been accepted to the main campus of Penn State University as a freshman. In the fall, he left for Penn State, thinking the change of environment would be good. As he found out, temptation was everywhere. He eventually left school.

    Substances take good people to bad places. It led Greg to “friends” who were using heroin, and then to heroin itself. Heroin led him to prison and a string of rehab stints that often accompanies substance use disorder and relapse. Relapse led him back to prison.

    As a person in long-term recovery, I thought I understood the disease of addiction. I truly felt I knew about it. What I found out was that opiate and heroin addiction was a far different animal, a stronger form of addiction than I could understand. I didn’t know about the difficulties in finding treatment options, as I myself had never had to seek out inpatient or outpatient treatment in the same way, or fight with insurance companies just to get help. One of life’s ironies is that my sons were my motivation for my recovery. I wanted to see them grow up. They saved my life. But even knowing what I knew, I was unable to save Greg’s life.

    After Greg’s second stint in prison, he was released and lived with his stepmother, Gail, and me. He had begun to turn his life around. He was highly engaged with us, and was reclaiming his life. He was working off his community service debt, working out for a “muck fest” event to raise money for MS and reconnecting with old friends who had been the good guys in his life. Greg was working for me in my small business and doing exceedingly well. He enjoyed the work. It didn’t just provide him with a job; it was also a career path where he would never have to fill out a job application and check the box for a past conviction.

    One night, 17 months into recovery, Greg ran into some of his old mates. He thought he could use just one more time. It was a decision that proved to be fatal. Greg overdosed. The people with him picked him up, placed him in his own car and drove him to the parking lot of the hospital. There, they simply left him. They didn’t hit the panic button on the key fob, didn’t ring the ER door, didn’t walk a block away and call 911. An hour later he was discovered, but it was too late.

    Two days later, I met with the investigating detective to reclaim Greg’s car and property. Later that day, I saw Greg’s body for the last time. That wasn’t how the day was supposed to go. It was my birthday. Greg, his brother Dave, Gail and I were supposed to have gone to a Phillies game that night. Earlier that day, the detective said to me, “If we had a 911 Good Samaritan law or a Narcan law, your son might very well be alive.”

    In the aftermath of Greg’s death, I made a vow that somehow, some way, I would save a life in Greg’s name. I didn’t know how I would go about it. Then the detective’s words echoed in my mind. I made the decision to close my business so that I could focus on preventing someone from following Greg’s path, and other loved ones from following mine.

    I was fortunate to be led to Jeanne and Don Keister, two educators who had lost their son Tyler to an overdose. They started an advocacy group and we joined together to make phone calls, arrange meetings and unify other parents and advocates to help ensure that those who might be under the influence would not be prosecuted if they sought medical attention for a companion who may have overdosed. In 2013, in Delaware, we passed comprehensive 911 Good Samaritan legislation (sometimes referred to as “medical amnesty”). The day after the bill signing, almost automatically, I started making phone calls in Pennsylvania where I had lived most of my life. Greg had been born, grew up and died there. A coalition from around the state was put together and the Pennsylvania law was passed in 2014. The very next year, our efforts led to 911 Good Samaritan laws and community access laws being passed in Florida, Kentucky and West Virginia.

    This law has saved countless lives since it was instituted. It saved the life of a young woman in recovery that I’m now very close to. It even saved the life of my own cousin. As I like to tell people, my vow to Greg was to save a life in his name — but then I got greedy. One life saved was not enough. Working to pass this law and others has humbled me. It makes me feel so warm inside to know that Greg’s life was not lived in vain.

    All the while in advocating for these laws, we fought the stigma. The stigma of addiction prevents loved ones from reaching out for help. They don’t know where to turn, and at the same time, they are afraid to reach out. We need people who are willing to be the public face so that loved ones going through this could see that they were not alone. It wasn’t just the stigma felt by those using substances — we also fought the stigma felt by families and loved ones. Working on advocacy allowed me to talk about Greg and what a great kid he was. It helped me keep his wonderful memory alive, which helps to tear down stereotypes and stigma all on its own. Together, we fought the stigma of people with this disease being labeled “junkies.” We fought the stigma that those with substance use disorders were bad people. We did this with a simple message: “First, save the life. Where there is life, there is hope.”

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