Sean O’Donnell was a typical Southern teenager. His mother recalls him as a boy who loved to hunt duck and deer and to sleep in a hammock set up in the woods. A natural outdoorsman, he enjoyed grilling savory venison dishes and had no particular fondness for shoes.
On June 3, 2017, nineteen-year-old Sean went out to a quarry with friends. That night, as the teenagers drank, partied and teased each other, one of the kids bet Sean $26 that he couldn’t drink half a gallon of vodka. Not one to duck a challenge, Sean took the bet and drank until he passed out. His friends tried unsuccessfully to wake him and an argument broke out over whether they should call 911. In the end, for fear of getting in trouble for underage drinking, no one made the call. They left Sean lying by the edge of the water, assuming he would wake up later and get himself home. Police found his body two days later at the bottom of the quarry.
The news of Sean’s death hit the small town of Pittsboro, North Carolina, hard, especially Sean’s family and his best friend, eighteen-year-old Boone Cummins. The boys had met a year earlier and become fast friends with a shared love of camping and mudding in trucks. Distraught at his friend’s death, Boone returned to the quarry five weeks later and invited friends to come out for an impromptu memorial service for Sean. As the night wore on and no one showed up, Boone grew despondent. He had taken multiple Xanax pills earlier that evening and as the drug entered his system, his phone calls and texts to friends became increasingly slurred and incoherent. His friends wanted to call for help, but were afraid of getting him in trouble. Later that night, the calls stopped. Police found Boone’s body days later in the quarry right where his best friend had died.
Sean and Boone’s deaths were fully preventable if only someone had been brave enough to call for help. Ironically, in 2013 North Carolina had passed a 911 Good Samaritan law that protects both the caller and the victim from prosecution if someone seeks help for a drug or alcohol-related overdose. The trouble is, not many people know about the law. Today, Sean and Boone’s surviving family members are trying to change that.
Bridget O’Donnell and Elly Cummins met for the first time at their older brothers’ funerals. Now friends, the girls have teamed up to raise awareness about the 911 Good Samaritan law among high school students.
“Our goal is to spread knowledge of this law and to try to save as many lives as possible,” says Elly Cummins. “High schoolers experiment [with drugs]. That is just a fact. We can’t change that, but we can make it safer so they continue to have futures afterwards.”
Already, Bridget and Elly’s message has made a difference. Not long after they delivered a presentation at a local high school, one of the students in attendance was in a situation where two young girls had overdosed. Though other people in the home urged him not to call 911 for fear of police, he stood up to them and made the call anyways. Both girls survived. Since then, three more high school students have come forward to say that they called 911 to report an overdose after hearing one of Bridget and Elly’s presentations.
“I wish that the kids who left my brother [at the quarry] had known about the law,” says Bridget. “I hope that by talking to these kids they will do the right thing if they are in a life or death situation.”
As the girls educate students about the 911 Good Samaritan law at high schools, their parents are working the issue from another angle. Mary O’Donnell and Julie Cummins, mothers to Sean and Boone, along with Jamie Summers and Lettie Micheletto, who both lost daughters to heroin poisoning, have been knocking on doors at the North Carolina General Assembly asking for state funds to raise awareness about the 911 Good Samaritan law. This year, their wish was granted when the state allocated $100,000 to fund a statewide public awareness campaign.
“Many people are unaware of the law and are fearful of law enforcement involvement,” says Lettie Micheletto, who was instrumental in convincing legislators to allocate this funding. Micheletto’s 27-year-old daughter, Megan, overdosed in a sober living home after 30 days in a treatment center. “I can’t help but think that if someone had been with [Megan], they could have called for help and been protected by the Good Samaritan Law.”
Part of an effective public awareness campaign means educating people about all drugs and how they affect the body. “So many public awareness campaigns are about opioids right now,” says Julie Cummins. Her son, Boone, died after taking Xanax, a benzodiazepine (benzo) typically used to treat anxiety. “Kids have no idea that benzos are addictive too. They think it’s not a big deal to take them. And around here it’s easier to get benzos at school than weed or alcohol.”
Drugs are easier to get than most parents think. Just ask Jamie Summers, who lost her eighteen-year-old daughter, Lara, to a heroin overdose in 2016.
“Lara did well in school, worked a part-time job and pretty much always came home at whatever time she was expected to,” says Jamie. “She was very responsible. I always felt like I could trust her to make good decisions. Although we had conversations about the dangers of drugs, I never in a million years imagined that she would try heroin, much less die from an overdose. I was extremely naïve to expect that Lara would not experiment with drugs.”
Lara overdosed the first time she had ever tried heroin. Rather than call for help, the kids who were with her attempted to drop her off at the hospital. A neighbor saw them moving her body down a set of apartment stairs and called 911. But it was already too late.
“Losing Lara has left an emptiness that can never be filled,” says Jamie. “I can’t begin to describe the devastation of losing a child.”
Losing a child is a tragedy that no parent ever expects. But one of the main messages of the 911 Good Samaritan law public awareness campaign will be to teach other parents that they are not immune from these events.
“Don’t assume that just because your child is well-behaved or doing great in school, they are not experimenting with drugs or alcohol,” says Mary O’Donnell, Sean’s mom. “I don’t care who you are, this could happen to your family. Kids and their friends need to understand what to do in situations such as an overdose. They need to know about the laws and how to get help.”
Sean, Boone, Megan, and Lara never meant to die. But they, and thousands of other young people, are casualties in a nation-wide struggle over what to do about drugs. In many places, fear, misinformation and stigma keep us from making informed choices or getting help to those who need it. We need more people to be brave. We need more people to call 911 when someone needs help. We need more families to have realistic conversations about drug use. Honesty and courage can save many lives.