Austin was the kind of kid who would have loved a ride in a helicopter. Unfortunately for Austin, he wasn’t awake for his first ride. Instead he was in a medically-induced coma after suffering a drug overdose and was in need of critical care and testing at McMaster Hospital.
At 17 Austin was funny and athletic. He loved his friends and was known to be a very caring person. Unfortunately for his mom, Christine, Austin also smoked weed. “We knew right away when he was smoking pot. We had been through it with his brother so we kind of knew the ropes. In the beginning we had a zero tolerance rule. We didn’t want it in our home.”
Over time however they became more liberal and accepted the fact that Austin was smoking weed. Christine turned her focus to keeping Austin safe by providing him with a no–questions-asked lifeline. “I always had my cell phone beside my bed. He knew that if he needed anything to call me and I’d go get him.”
Ironically, the night that Austin overdosed, Christine had put her phone away feeling confident in his plans to sleep over at his friend’s house. Christine felt certain that he would be safe that night.
Austin’s plans changed after an argument with his friend. He decided to head over to his dealer’s place for some weed and to hang out. Not long after he arrived more people showed up to the dealer’s house including one woman who had brought a bottle of prescription morphine. Sitting around the coffee table, everyone was given a pill to crush and snort — including Austin. “As far as we knew, Austin had never tried opioids before. We definitely feel that peer pressure was part of his decision as he was trying to fit in with the older kids.”
After some time had passed the dealer decided to pressure Austin to have another pill. “After the second pill, Austin began to show signs of overdose. There were six people with him — they even tried putting him in a cold bath to cool him down.” Eventually they put Austin on his side on the couch hoping he would “sleep it off”. The group decided not to call 911 fearing that they might get in trouble.
The next morning it was clear to the group that Austin had not “slept it off” and 911 was finally called. It’s estimated that Austin had suffered in overdose for six hours without assistance. “When I wake up pretty much every night — that’s what I’m thinking about. How my son suffered and it didn’t have to be that way.”
Austin’s helicopter ride to McMaster did not bring good news for his family. The results of his MRI indicated brain death. Christine and her husband would have to say goodbye to their beloved son. They somehow found the strength to turn their own tragedy into something positive by donating Austin’s organs. In the end he was able to save five lives.
Christine continues to find ways to make some good come out of their tragedy. She is involved in many community organizations, support groups, and public education initiatives to help prevent the next kid from overdosing. Austin’s story even caught the attention of politicians and helped pass the Good Samaritan Act into law so that in an overdose situation, anyone who calls 911 will be granted immunity. “Had someone called 911 that night, without a shadow of a doubt, we would be having a different conversation today.”
Christine also spends time at Austin’s old high school leading an overdose education session with the students. One of the main objectives is to get kids thinking about what they would do in an overdose situation ahead of time. “I really believe that you need a plan beforehand. You have a better chance of acting on the plan if you’ve thought it out — even if you’re under the influence of a substance.”
Christine also urges parents to have the conversations with their kids about drugs and to be really up front — especially when they are younger. “I believe that a lot of experimentation with drugs is based on emotional pain. Parents need to be on the look-out for how their kids are coping with the many social pressures that they face.”
Christine and her family have had to find a new normal since Austin passed away. Her hope is that more people will learn about the signs and symptoms of drug overdose so that nobody else has to go through the pain of losing a child or loved one. “There’s not an hour that goes by that I don’t think about Austin. Things do get better but there’s always going to be a hole in my heart. It’s unimaginable. I’ve experienced loss before but there’s nothing like losing a child. It’s unnatural.”
For more information about overdose awareness and local supports visit the Waterloo Region Integrated Drug Strategy.