Updated: May 8
By Justin's dad, Gregg
Voorhees, New Jersey
I lost my first-born son, Justin, on December 19th, 2012. Justin was intelligent, kind, thoughtful, loving, caring and loved life to the fullest. However, Justin’s story is similar to most who have an addiction, and that is he began drinking at 15 and eventually moved on to other substances which we learned while he was in college. Justin in his younger years played soccer, ice hockey, street hockey, lacrosse and did karate. My son attended Drexel and Syracuse Universities, respectively, but mid-year was dismissed from each due to aberrant behavior. Justin saw therapists as a result of his aberrant behavior and drinking since he was 15 years old. However, they thought it was his anxiety, OCD and behavior, not realizing he had a hidden addiction. His dream was to complete college and become a successful businessman. However, the punishments, reprimands and good parenting did not halt Justin’s behavior of what we later learned was a deep seated addiction. I learned that you cannot control another human being’s actions and that addiction is a serious disease.
In April of 2012, Justin approached his mother and admitted that he was addicted to Percocet and Oxycontin. She took him to our family physician and during the appointment, Justin asked the doctor not to tell me about his issues, claiming that the news would “kill me.” The physician told his mother to take Justin to a crisis center immediately for treatment, but Justin convinced her, without the doctor’s knowledge, to take him to a suboxone doctor that he had found instead.
Two months later I was finally informed, against Justin’s wishes, about his addiction to Percocets. I demanded that he go to an inpatient rehab but he said as a 21 year old he could make his own decision; he didn’t want to go to an inpatient facility for fear of being exposed to more dangerous drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine. Unbeknownst to us, he had been using heroin for quite some time at that point. Eventually, he agreed to participate in an outpatient treatment program for the summer and began weekly psychiatric visits. While he was in the program I contacted the intake director to inquire about his progress. I was informed that they could not disclose any information under HIPAA regulations. The following September he attended Temple University as a sophomore and joined a wonderful fraternity AEPI. He continued to see a psychiatrist and things seemed to be going well, which made his passing December all the more shocking to us.
I explained Justin’s history of substance abuse to the psychiatrist who tried to counsel him and monitor his prescriptions for depression, anxiety, and OCD. After my son passed away I learned that he hadn’t disclosed his heroin addiction--except to say that he had tried it once.
Throughout his time in college, Justin made friends who had also been in and out rehab, including one boy who was attending pharmacy school, a local judge's son who worked for Governor Christie, and an attorney's son. These examples demonstrate how addiction is indiscriminate--its devastation reaches all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. When we found out that Justin had passed away from an overdose of heroin, our entire family was shocked. Only upon further investigation did I learn that heroin is rampant in our communities---killing our children and destroying the lives of their families.
We, as a society, need to advance education in schools at every grade level regarding the dangers of abusing opiates and the slim recovery rates of those who become addicted.
It seems as though no one speaks about their family’s struggle with addiction due to embarrassment or shame. However, within two months of my son’s death, I spoke to well over 25 parents who came forward with stories similar to mine--several stints of rehab-- only to lose their child to an overdose. Many families I have spoken to could no longer afford the high costs of treatment; their insurance would only cover a limited period of rehabilitation.
I know that our nation has much to contend with in regards to the economy, immigration, the budget, gun laws, and international concerns. However, if our children are dying of this horrible disease there will be no viable future for our country. When you list all of the famous, intelligent people whose lives have been taken by heroin, it is clear that this country has lost a wealth of talent and success to this disease. Justin was an extremely intelligent young man as were his friends who have admitted to using drugs since his death. They all had bright futures.
Justin was not violent and would never intentionally hurt a soul, but his addiction hurt and endangered the lives of those close to him, including his younger brother, Austin. I thank God that Justin never hurt anyone on the road. I have pictures of his apartment that demonstrate how he was living at college; there were cigarette burns on his bedding from all of the times he nodded out.
In many circumstances, parents know what's best for their children, especially if given the appropriate information with which to exercise judgment and guidance, but parents are unable to operate effectively in a vacuum. In my testimony before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on April 26, 2013, I requested that language be added to the HIPAA exceptions to avoid ambiguity for healthcare providers so that parents or legal caretakers of emancipated minors with documented drug abuse and/or mental health histories, who continue to cover the emancipated minor with health insurance, and/or continue to support the individual financially, can have access to that individual’s medical records until the age of 26.
Let me emphasize that without our knowledge, my son admitted to his suboxone doctor, as well as to our family physician that he had been using heroin for 11 months. Justin told his mother that he was only using Percocet and Oxycontin. If we had known that he was using heroin our response would have been very different indeed--outpatient rehab would not have been an option. Although my son's life was cut short at the age of 21, I am confident that I can bring hope and success to other families struggling with this disease.
No one could save Justin--not his family, friends, nor Justin himself, but it is my hope that with much needed change, Justin's tragedy and my advocacy can help to save millions of young lives. Since Justin’s passing, I have spoken to close to a thousand parents and children regarding opiate and heroin abuse in order to bring awareness, education and prevention amongst our communities. If there is one pertinent fact that I can bring to the forefront, that is for every parent to have a Power of Attorney, a Medical Directive for their 18 year old so they are made aware of their symptoms, medical condition and are apprised of every step throughout their young adult’s care.
Visit Gregg’s websites: justinforjustice.org