Three years and nearly 10 months have passed since Gloria King held her son David in her arms for the last time, but the pain of losing her 20-year-old child to a drug overdose hasn’t gone away. It will never fully subside.
In her office at Piedmont Fayette Hospital, Gloria tearfully recounted the events that led up to her eldest son’s death, a two-year-long series of drug-related missteps ending in a fatal overdose. David’s story, his unexpected and tragic downfall in particular, is unique to him. But his weapon of choice, fentanyl, is part of a larger story that is claiming the lives of 91 Americans a day.
From 2000-2014, the amount of deaths from drug overdoses increased 137 percent, including a 200 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, more than 33,000 people were killed from opioid overdoses. Nearly half of opioid overdoses involve a prescription opioid. That’s where David’s story begins.
‘The least likely person’
During a trip to the dentist to get his wisdom teeth removed in January 2012, David was prescribed Percocet. “It appeared to me that he had way more than he needed for his wisdom teeth being pulled,” Gloria recalls.
In his final semester of high school at the time, David never had a problem with drug addiction. He was, as Gloria describes him, “an all-American kind of kid.” He played sports and the piano, and unlike his brother Jeremiah, who was one year his junior, David was an extrovert. Gloria knew David had experimented with alcohol and drugs in his senior year of high school, but nothing out of the ordinary for a kid his age. Heroin, for example, wasn’t even on her radar.
“David was the least likely person that this should happen to,” Gloria said.
In May, a week before high school graduation, Gloria received a call from David while he was at work. “My stomach is killing me, Mom,” he said. David was brought in shortly thereafter for an emergency appendectomy, and more drugs were prescribed to help the pain go away. That summer, while working as a counselor at a day camp, David fell and fractured his skull. He started having seizures following the fall, and was given medication to curb the seizures.
When David returned home for winter break from his first semester at college, at the University of West Georgia, he’d lost 20 pounds. Gloria was concerned because her son was skinny to begin with. Then, she noticed the needle tracks on his arms. By then, it had been nearly a year since he was first prescribed the Percocet for his wisdom teeth. He was told he needed to go to drug rehab.
“Trying to find resources for him was like being at the DMV,” Gloria said.
‘I want to go back in time’
David relapsed pretty quickly. He started going to AA and NA meetings and went back to school. But in the summertime, he got a DUI, which sent him back into treatment. Gloria could see that David felt himself being sucked into an endless cycle. “The life had pretty much been kicked out of him,” Gloria remembers. By then, he realized the magnitude of the issues he faced.
“Momma, I don’t know what I’ve done to myself,” he told his mother. “I don’t want to leave this way. I want to go back in time and I want to make it not happen.”
Through it all, Gloria, a single mother, was right by David’s side. She told him she’d get him what he needed to get better, even as the treatment costs began to add up (“literally thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars,” Gloria said). He went to a residential home in North Georgia to get treatment. From September 2013 to January the following year, David stayed clean.
Then, in early 2014, Gloria received a call. David had another seizure, and she needed to come get him. She didn’t want to bring him back home because she knew what would happen. David was going to start using drugs again. Except this time, Gloria didn’t know it would be the last time David would use drugs.
It was also going to be the last time she’d see her son alive.
Planning a funeral
On Thursday, January 23, 2014, Gloria arrived to her Senoia home from work at the hospital to find David and “some sketchy guys” in the house. They’d given him fentanyl patches. Fentanyl, a dangerous opioid pain medication, is known to cause respiratory distress and death. Gloria put her son to bed and laid with him a while longer and made sure he was breathing well. He got up at about midnight and ate some sandwiches. Gloria tried to get some rest. She had to go to work the next day, or thought she did anyway.
At about 3 a.m., with Gloria and David in the house (Jeremiah was with staying with his father), Gloria’s dog Luna jolted her awake. She was suddenly overcome with a gut feeling, a mother’s intuition, that something was wrong. She stepped into David’s room to find her son sitting up in his bed. It took her less than five seconds to realize she wouldn’t be able to perform CPR to revive her first-born son. His skin was cold and blue and, according to Gloria, “There was no life at all.” The following week, while snow poured down from the sky, Gloria buried her son almost 10 months before his 21st birthday.
“To me, that night, in my mind I was thinking, here we go again,” Gloria said. “We’re starting all over. Did I think I’d be planning a funeral the next day? No.”
Since that day, Gloria has retraced the events that led to David’s death and thought about what she, or anyone else, could’ve done differently. While the instant and oftentimes lingering feeling is regret, Gloria sees an epidemic taking place in the country, and she wants to do her part to ensure no parent has to endure the loss of a child.
No one can grieve for Gloria, she’s learned. That burden falls solely on her shoulders. But she’s had help, in the form of co-workers and friends who have been there for her, and some who have shared stories of a similar loss. She’s found support groups online, but in her darkest moments she thinks of her other son, Jeremiah, who reminds her every day it wasn’t her fault. “He doesn’t deserve to not have his mother around,” Gloria said. Losing David has been extremely tough on Jeremiah, especially because the two were close. This past year, Gloria heard Jeremiah laugh in a way she’d never heard before, a small yet reassuring sign for his mother that he’ll be OK.
On Gloria’s office door, in addition to pictures of her two sons, she has photographs of her five dogs: Larry, Lucy, Leo, Luna, and Linas. She only had one before David’s death. The added companionship has helped her through the most difficult times.
‘This kid is going to die’
Gloria doesn’t place blame on the dentist that prescribed David more drugs than needed, but she knows of at least one other time after his wisdom teeth were pulled when David went to the dentist saying he had a toothache in order to get Percocet. If there’s any blame to go around, it’s on the “sketchy guys” who gave David fentanyl in what turned out to be his final hours.
“They’re supposed to be made so that there’s no way you can get the full dose,” Gloria said. “David knew his drugs well. The bottom line was that the guys who gave him the drugs had stolen it from a residence and they told him to smoke it. Apparently, with a fentanyl patch, you get the full dose. He had no chance. He would have stopped breathing almost immediately. That kid went to jail for about three years. He’s already out. They didn’t want to bring any manslaughter charges.”
Part of the challenges of bringing attention to the issues of opioid abuse, Gloria said, is changing the stigma behind addiction. As she’s learned, it can happen to anybody.
“I just felt like I had time,” Gloria said. “If somebody would’ve just said, no, you’ve got to do more. This kid is going to die.”
Gloria doesn’t feel the same regret she used to. She used to replay the sight of her son, sitting up, lifeless in his bed, wondering if she could’ve done more to save him. Even with his drug addiction, she never assumed his life would end like that.
In the three years and 10 months since, Gloria’s faith, which she’d never questioned, was tested incredibly. While she’s smiling more now than she was a couple years ago, she can’t move on, not fully at least. But she can find purpose in loss, a silver lining hidden in tragedy. She plans to continue her fight against drug addiction in America, even as the thought of her all-American boy weighs heavily on her mind each day.
“It’s like part of you dies,” Gloria said, “and the rest of you just kind of keeps going through the motions.”
Thank you to Gloria King for sharing her story. Fayette County leaders will hold a town hall to address the growing concern for opioid abuse on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. The gathering will take place at the Sams Auditorium in Fayetteville, and it is called “Not Our Town, Not Our Kids: Pain Killers, Heroin and Overdose.”