AIDS and the Fentanyl Crisis

Article/Blog: AIDS and the Fentanyl Crisis - Michelle Leopold, May 9, 2022

2-1/2 years ago this week, my BFF predicted that Trevor's death from fentanyl poisoning would be similar to the AIDS crisis, with a young boy's death needed to change the paradigm shift around the causes, prevention, and awareness needed for this new, deadly epidemic - and to erase the stigma. Finally, National Fentanyl Awareness Day 5/10/22 may be the start of the change needed to help raise awareness and stop this horrific epidemic of fentanyl poisoning.

My beautiful boy Trevor was found dead in his dorm room on 11/17/19. The coroner agreed with my initial assumption, that his sudden death was likely caused by fentanyl poisoning; we were both reasonably sure the toxicology report would prove his cause of death to be a lethal dose of illicit fentanyl .

When my best friend arrived from NYC for the funeral, she and I talked about the likelihood of Trevor's death being from a poisoned fentapill, and at that time she shared a profound, insightful connection. She reminded me how, when we were living in SF at the start of the AIDS epidemic, how many people were dying, including so many friends, and friends of friends, yet so little was being done on a national level. The reasoning seemed to be because the people dying from "the gay plague" were marginalized populations, homosexuals and intravenous drug users, whose lives seemed less worthy of research and life saving measures. It wasn't until a young boy named Ryan White contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion, that finally the government stepped in on a national level with awareness, outreach, research, and gradually changing the stigma around the blood-borne disease. 2-1/2 years ago this week, my BFF predicted that Trevor's death from fentanyl poisoning would be similar to the AIDS crisis, with a young boy's death needed to change the paradigm shift around the causes, prevention, and awareness needed for this new, deadly epidemic.

Similarly, before Trevor died, the fentanyl deaths we heard about were mostly limited to those who were deep in the disease of addiction. However, things started changing as more fentanyl entered the country, and four months before Trevor's death, one of my sons' close friends died on his 19th birthday, supposedly taking a Xanax before going to sleep, and his girlfriend woke up to a dead body next to her. He was a college student, and had his whole life ahead of him. He did not intend to overdose and die on illicit fentanyl; he thought he was taking a Xanax.

Little was being done by anyone besides other grieving parents around fentanyl poisoning when Trevor died in November 2019, just as during the beginning of the AIDS crisis, because nearly all those who were dying from fentanyl poisoning were habitual drug users or had substance use disorder. But I joined the hundreds I found around the country, we locked arms to fight the many angles of this epidemic, and was devastated as more and more grieving parents joined our club that none of us ever wanted to be in, many never having heard of fentanyl until they learned the cause of death of their child, and devastatingly, many starting their activism during the opioid crisis.

Sadly, Trevor's death at 18 and thousands of other needless fentanyl poisoning deaths were not enough to create that Ryan White moment needed in this fentanyl crisis. For over two years, I have been part of the voices of thousands of parents who believe their child did not intend to take fentanyl, but instead were deceived to death. We parents have been raising our voices to let others know of this growing deadly fentapill epidemic. But little or nothing was being done on a federal, government, or national level. Even prosecution of fentanyl dealers was rarely happening among members in our horrible club, despite knowing the names of the dealer who sold our child a lethal dose of fentanyl in a pill.

Gradually a paradigm shift began in the epidemic, similar to when Ryan White contracted AIDS ; more horrific stories started hitting the news of non-marginalized humans - young teenagers - dying from their youthful experimentation, Of Luca in Redding, CA, forever 13 from a deadly Percocet bought on Snapchat. From Alexander in Laguna Niguel, CA, forever 14 from supposed Oxycontin bought on Snapchat. Of Valentina in Concord, CA forever 16. Of Issaiah, forever 15, in Sacramento CA. Of Zach in Rocklin, CA, forever 17, all living at home with their parents, not on the streets, going to middle school or high school, with a whole future ahead of them. All dead from random drugs, often purchased via social media.

Finally, a national effort is launching May 10, which will hopefully raise greater awareness of the One Pill Can Kill & No Random Drugs message around deadly illicit fentanyl. Too many grieving parents have found activism around this topic to be the reason we can get out of bed in the morning, but we already are depleted after having a hole in our hearts, and no budget for which to spend on resources to get the message out.

I for one am so grateful for National Fentanyl Awareness Day, and I hope its success results in saving lives; and eliminating the hard work grieving parents have been doing since losing our own children to this epidemic.

Until then, I will continue to be Trevor's voice to try to save lives by sharing his story of his life - and death cut short by a blue "dirty 30".

-Michelle Leopold, Greenbrae CA - May 9, 2022