On Overdose Awareness Day, a Mother’s Plea for Compassion

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Courtesy of Marilee Murphy Odendahl

Ian Murphy Mitchard, center, with his cousins in 2005. "He was just off the road. He traveled from 'Frisco to Freeport in record time, hitching, so that he could be at a family picnic," Ian's mother says.

Marilee Murphy Odendahl wants you to know a few things about her son, Ian. “He was marvelously funny, loyal, extremely intelligent and a really good observer of human behavior, so much that you wouldn’t necessarily like to be the focus of it. He loved music and played guitar. He was my joy.” She also wants you to know that Ian Murphy Mitchard died on Sept. 27, 2007, three days after his 28th birthday, of a heroin overdose.

Especially today, Overdose Awareness Day, Murphy Odendahl doesn’t want other families to suffer the ways hers has. But each year, many do: more than 28,000 people die every year of overdose, a growing problem.

The last time his mother saw him, Ian had stopped by the insurance office where she works near Chicago. “He told me he loved me and roared off on his motorcycle,” after assuring her he’d be back in time for a doctor’s appointment the next day, Murphy Odendahl says. He was eventually found dead by Chicago city workers, hidden behind tall brush. His mother thinks Ian’s friends may have abandoned him there.

Chicago is home to the Chicago Recovery Alliance, a needle-exchange program that was a pioneer in the distribution of anti-overdose kits to addicts. The kits contain naloxone (brand name Narcan), which can reverse overdoses of opioids, including heroin and painkillers like Oxycodone, if administered quickly enough.

Given that more than half the time, drug users do not overdose alone — and that it takes hours for an opioid overdose to cause death — the availability of naloxone can be a lifesaver. The bad news is that the drug is available only by prescription, and distributed to addicts only in some cities.

MORE: Report: Chronic, Undertreated Pain Affects 116 Million Americans

Murphy Odendahl believes Ian didn’t overdose alone. He had friends in the neighborhood where his body was found. Nobody had administered naloxone to him after his overdose.

Perhaps the failure was because while Chicago does have a major naloxone distribution program, it doesn’t have a “Good Samaritan” law like the one recently passed in New York State. So, if a fellow drug user who did not have direct access to naloxone had tried to save Ian by calling 911, he would have been at risk for arrest for drug possession. That fear of arrest, research shows, is a major deterrent to the seeking of assistance by overdose witnesses, who largely tend to be addicts themselves.

“If Good Samaritan laws had been in place, someone may have made that call that would have saved his life,” Murphy Odendahl says. “Why on earth would we threaten incarceration for the person who is trying to save a life? It’s sheer madness and would not be the case in any other circumstance. We’re basically saying that people who suffer from the disease of addiction don’t deserve to be saved.”

Murphy Odendahl also believes that naloxone should be made more widely available — that it should be sold over-the-counter in every drug store and placed in every home first-aid kit. Many overdose deaths occur in parents’ homes, where Mom and Dad may be unaware of their child’s drug problem until they find him turning blue in bed. “Who wouldn’t want to have it then?” she asks.

“I can’t think of any medical condition other than drug addiction where if a drug is available to save a life, it’s not touted as a miracle,” Murphy Odendahl notes. “There are so few people outside of EMT’s and [needle exchanges] who know about it, and that certainly includes mothers and fathers dealing with kids.”

MORE: New York State Passes ‘Good Samaritan’ Law to Fight Overdose

Many parents take the position that tougher penalties for failing to seeking help — rather than amnesty under Good Samaritan laws — would be more effective. Murphy Odendahl understands these families’ pain, but disagrees with their stance. “They’re looking for something to blame and someone to blame. They’re in terrific agony, they don’t really know what to do,” she says.

From her perspective, however, some of the worst pain comes from the stigma connected with addiction. “The message is continuously that you are disposable, you are scum, you asked for this, you don’t deserve help. Any parent who has to live with this knows that people think their children are disposable. It is devastating to those left behind.”

So Murphy Odendahl asks for compassion, describing the pain that Ian suffered throughout his life. As early as 13, he showed signs of depression and made attempts at suicide. By 16, he began running away from home. “Through all of his teen years and up to the day of his death he had it rough and so did everyone around him, but mostly him. There was a real dearth of understanding and compassion. There was more blaming than help,” Murphy Odendahl says.

After Ian’s death, his mother discovered that he had visited the Chicago Recovery Alliance, which led her to believe that he may have used naloxone to save someone else’s life. “If I could do anything to save another family from this and another person from death, I would do it,” she says. “And if Ian were alive today, I believe he would be a passionate and effective [advocate].”

MORE: U.S. Aims to Reduce Overdose Deaths, But Will the New Plan Work?

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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