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Deadly Consequences: Overdoes exacerbated by fentanyl poisoning spark national movement

SOURCE: Dyestat.com



One Pill. And A Grief With No Finish Line

Two Young Hurdlers Among Thousands Dying Of Fentanyl-Laced Pharamaceuticals, And Two Mothers With A Dire Warning

A DyeStat story by Dave Devine


The video is short, unedited. Casual and spontaneous. A propped-up cellphone, footage on the fly. Exactly how a teenager would do it.

Laura Didier discovered it on her son Zachary’s phone, shortly after he died.

The local police had completed their work by then. They had performed the necessary download of the phone’s contents, carried out the forensic analysis, returned the unlocked phone to the Didier family.

By then, the family knew what likely had killed Zach. Knew that he’d almost certainly been poisoned by a counterfeit Percocet pill laced with fentanyl, two days after Christmas, December 27, 2020.

He was 17, a senior at Whitney High in Rocklin, Calif.

Laura still isn’t sure what caused her to pick up his phone one night before bed.

Grief, certainly.

The ache of missing Zach. A vague hope that perhaps she’d find some new images of her son. A need to see his face.

“I just wanted to see if he had any pictures I hadn’t seen,” Laura says, “and then I found the video. It felt almost like he guided me to find it.”

In the short clip — less than three minutes long — Zach leans in to press Record on the phone’s camera, turns to his dog Jake, says, You ready? Me too, and then begins playing a jazzy, improvisational version of “Christmas Time Is Here” on a piano.

His fingers dance across the keys, deftly finding notes, while behind him Jake angles his nose toward the ceiling, howling and “singing” along.

It’s a disarming, intimate glimpse into Zach’s personality. His evident gifts. His playfulness and humor.

His laughter and light.

The video ends with Zach shaking his head at Jake’s singing, smiling impishly at the camera, and then reaching to click it off.

When Laura saw the footage, it felt like something providential. Meant to be found. He’d recorded it only a few months earlier. She’ll never know why.

“On the one hand it’s comforting,” she says, “but on the other hand, it’s very jarring. I still have to remind myself that he’s gone.”

It’s a story that’s unfolding all over the country.

More than 1,700 miles away, in the northern suburbs of Austin, Texas, a different mother — Becky Schulze Stewart — was struggling with the same jarring disconnect. The same weaving path through a fog of grief.

Becky, too, had lost a son to a fentanyl-laced pill, less than three months after Zach died in northern California.

Cameron Stewart, 19 years old. Recently graduated from Cedar Park High School.

“Of course, hands down the worst day of my life,” Becky says. “You can’t think of that day and not re-live it over and over again. He was such a beautiful, talented, funny kid.”

She’s talking about Cameron, but she could easily be talking about Zach. They had that much in common; far more than simply the way they died.

A pair of boys: one from California, one from Texas.

Both with sly, clever smiles. Mischievous, knowing eyes under mops of shaggy brown hair.

Both standout hurdlers on their high school track teams.

Both killed by fentanyl, leaving shattered families with more questions than answers.

Leaving two mothers, half a country apart, sifting through old photos, scrolling police-scoured phones, caressing yellowed album pages, folders of forgotten schoolwork. Pulling up videos, hitting rewind and replay.

Over and over.

Searching for ways to still see their sons.

“I watch that video all the time,” Laura says, “when I need to feel him alive.”



Once Zach Didier figured out how to three-step between barriers, his hurdling took off.

It happened in the spring of 2019, his sophomore year. He trimmed his strides from five down to three, and every meet after that featured a personal best in the 110-meter hurdles.

“He was just a natural,” Laura recalls. “Really beautiful to watch. After he perfected his three-step, it was like everything clicked.”

Zach had been athletic his whole life, first starring as a defender on middle school soccer teams coached by his father, Chris, and then taking up track and field in eighth grade. By high school, he was a high jumper and a hurdler, transferring his speed from the soccer field to the track.

“He always loved running, even for fun,” Laura says.

She’s a runner herself, having completed multiple marathons. Chris was a hurdler in high school; the sport was a natural fit for Zach.

He showed promise his freshman year, but it was that sophomore season when everything fell into place. He cut his best in the 300-meter hurdles from 49.62 to 45.29. Shaved more than two seconds from his 110 times, from the mid-19’s down to 17.03.

“He was just on fire,” Laura says, “every race.”

And it wasn’t just his own races that excited Zach, he loved circulating between events to cheer on teammates when he wasn’t competing. It was part of the reason he received awards for improvement and sportsmanship from Whitney High’s hurdle coach at the 2019 season-ending banquet.

All of it — the success, the awards, finding efficiency between hurdles — left Zach excited for his junior year. But that track season in California, as it was almost everywhere else in the country, was eliminated by COVID-19.

And Zach never got a senior season.

He died the December before track resumed again.

His parents’ favorite track memories then, all go back to that sophomore campaign, when everything was still possible.

“You could feel his sense of accomplishment,” Laura says. “The first race where he three-stepped the entire way and his time really improved. That would probably be my favorite memory — seeing that hard work pay off.”

Cameron Stewart’s strength as a hurdler was his form: low and smooth over the sticks.

He was tall, like his older brother Hayden, so the challenge for Cam was getting his long legs moving again after clearing each barrier.

“But he had beautiful form,” Becky says.

Athletic from a young age, Cam followed Hayden, who was three years ahead in school, through a succession of sports. Football, soccer, track. For one year, they competed together on those teams at Hill Country Christian School. It’s a small, faith-based K-12, the kind of school where a gifted freshman can make varsity across multiple seasons.

Hayden was already an established star there; Cam was impatient to catch up.

“Cameron was a very talented athlete,” Becky recalls. “But he also felt a self-imposed pressure to be better than his brother.”

Hayden had set school records in the 110- and 300-meter hurdles and won both events as a junior at the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) State Meet. He had no intention of letting his freshman brother beat him while they were in school together, but once he’d graduated and moved on to Angelo State University for a program in exercise science, he supported Cameron from afar.

“After I left, I didn’t care if he beat my times,” Hayden says, “so I was encouraging him to get better and better. I wanted him to go to State and have a chance at winning.”

Cam nearly did that his sophomore and junior years, making the podium in both hurdle events — runner-up in the 110-meter hurdles in 2018 and 2019, third in the 300-meter hurdles both years — along with a third-place finish for his 4x400 relay in 2019.

With personal bests of 16.11 for the 110 hurdles and 41.69 for the 300’s, he was closing in on Hayden’s school records.

“His goal was always to beat me,” Hayden says, “which I’m sure would’ve happened at some point, had he run his senior year.”

COVID arrived during Cam’s senior spring, but that’s not the reason he didn’t run. At some point during his junior year, alongside those podium finishes on the track, he began struggling with significant mental health challenges.

“Anxiety, depression…you name it,” Becky says. “And he chose to deal with that in unhealthy ways.”

Reluctant to accept professional counseling, Cam began self-medicating with a variety of substances. The Stewarts discovered the issue early on and helped him enter a rehabilitation program. By the beginning of the 2019-20 school year — which he began at a new school, Cedar Park High — Cam was doing well again. But that spring, as the pandemic shuttered his school, and interrupted most of the social outlets in his life, Cam experienced a relapse. He completed a second stint in rehab — “He was doing great,” Becky says — and then graduated in July from Cedar Park, but he never did run the hurdles again.

Like the Didiers in California, Becky clings to memories of those earlier seasons, of Cam winning races, when every meet was charged with possibility.

“When he did succeed,” she says, “it just lit up my heart. Knowing he was blissful. Because I knew the struggles he had, and to know that in that moment he had some relief was — it was just pretty cool to watch.”

Overdose isn’t the right word.

Laura and Becky understand why it’s used so frequently in describing drug deaths, but they’re adamant that it doesn’t accurately capture what happened to their sons, or what’s happening to tens of thousands of other people, young and old, around the country.

An “overdose,” Becky points out, suggests that someone, intentionally or by accident, ingested too much of a known substance. Zach and Cam each died taking a single pill made to look like a familiar prescription pharmaceutical. In both cases, the pills were laced with fentanyl, the cheap, deadly synthetic opioid that drug dealers are increasingly mixing into traditional street drugs and pressing into counterfeit prescription pills.

Zach, who died over Christmas break in 2020, connected with a stranger on Snapchat who sold the 17-year-old what Zach understood to be a pharmaceutical-grade Percocet.

He had begun, during that break, to exhibit some subtle signs of tiredness and irritability, but nothing that raised a major red flag with his parents. When Laura checked in with him a few days earlier, he’d assured her, “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine.”

On the night of Dec. 26, Zach went to bed at his dad’s house after spending the evening with friends. When Chris went to check on him the next day, after Zach didn’t come downstairs around his normal wake-up time, Chris found him slumped and unresponsive at his bedroom desk.

Chris immediately began administering CPR, but it was too late.

When Laura arrived in the driveway at Chris’s house, amid the baffling swirl of emergency vehicles, a stunned Chris managed three devastating words: “Our baby’s gone.”

Both parents were incredulous that their healthy, vibrant son could somehow die so unexpectedly. But almost immediately, the coroner informed them that he suspected only two possible reasons for Zach’s death: natural causes or fentanyl. That’s how prevalent poisoning by counterfeit drugs had become in Placer County, where the Didiers live.

In Texas, Cameron’s death was remarkably similar.

Although he’d continued to struggle with mental health concerns in the year after high school graduation, he was doing well by the spring of 2021. Living in his own apartment, holding down a successful lawncare job with several side projects in the works, considering applying to college after a year off.

He and Becky had been texting back and forth on Friday, March 19, planning to meet at Austin’s Town Lake the next morning to walk his dog, Bailey, and get lunch at the food carts. But when Becky didn’t receive a reply to her final text asking to confirm a time, she knew something was wrong.

She called Cameron’s dad, Dwayne — who hadn’t heard from Cam since the day before — and they agreed to meet at Cam’s apartment.

“He didn’t answer the door, of course,” Becky says.

She immediately called the police, and when officers entered the apartment they found Cameron in his bed, unresponsive and without a pulse. Toxicology results showed he had died from a single pill containing a lethal dose of fentanyl. Becky and Dwayne eventually learned that he’d purchased the pill from an anonymous dealer on Snapchat, thinking it was Valium.

"Truly, one pill killed him," Becky says. "He went to sleep and never woke up."

The definitiveness of that death, the complete blindsiding, is the most striking aspect of fentanyl poisoning.

“These kids are dying from their mistakes,” Becky says, “instead of learning from them…Cameron’s death was just the cost of doing business to these dealers. They know their product is killing people, but they don’t care, because there’s always going to be someone else to buy the product.”

And the numbers are truly staggering.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug overdose is now the leading cause of preventable death among Americans ages 18 to 45, outpacing suicide, gun violence and traffic accidents. Overdose rates for adolescents between 14 and 18 have also soared in the last two years.

More than 107,600 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021, the highest annual death toll on record, and drug experts consider poisoning by fentanyl to be the primary driver of the astonishing increase.

Only two milligrams of fentanyl — an amount equal to a few grains of salt — can constitute a lethal dose. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 4 out of 10 pills containing fentanyl hold at least that much. And due to a lack of dosage control in batch mixing by drug dealers, many illicit pills contain much higher amounts.

It means that stories like Zach’s and Cam’s are everywhere now.

A single pill, purchased on-line. A sudden, shocking death. A grieving family.

A coroner who immediately suspects fentanyl.

“It’s the finality of it,” Laura says. “It’s not like you have a bad hangover and you learn a lesson. You are just gone…forever and ever.”

Zach loved music.

He taught himself to play the ukulele, the guitar and the piano. He loved singing with his dog, Jake. His favorite singer was Shawn Mendes.

He had wide-ranging tastes, but inherited Laura’s love for jazz. She’d grown up on the old standards, used to sing in a jazz band. Zach would watch her perform when he was younger. On his birthday every year, they had a tradition of going for a trail run at Folsom Lake, near Sacramento, and Zach would play Sinatra on his phone to keep his mom smiling.

For one of his birthdays, his girlfriend gave him a record player so he could spin old jazz albums. “He was very touched by that gift,” Laura remembers. “He had an old soul.”

The big gift for his 16th birthday was tickets to see Hamilton with his mom and grandmother. He’d wanted to see it forever.

He loved musicals.

In the spring of 2020, just before the COVID shutdown, Zach was cast in his first production at school. The show was High School Musical, with Zach in the lead role of Troy.

He had a band of close friends who dubbed themselves “The Lads.”

At Whitney High’s 2021 graduation ceremony, where the school left an empty seat for Zach, those “Lads” presented Chris and Laura with Zach’s diploma, and then wrapped the parents in smothering, heartbreaking hugs.

Zach loved the movie White Christmas.

It was a family tradition to watch the film every holiday season, one Laura brought from her own childhood. Two days before his death, Zach was with Laura at her parents’ house for Christmas dinner when they realized they hadn’t watched it yet. They stayed up late watching the old favorite.

“I’m so glad we did,” Laura says now. “I just didn’t know that would be—”

She hesitates, searching for a way to end the sentence.

“That was the last time.”

Cam was goofy and charismatic and could crack up anyone with a quip or a sidelong glance.

He could be irreverent and rebellious. He earned frequent dress code violations at his Christian school, was busted often for using his phone in class.

“He didn’t care for school much,” Becky says, “although he was great in academics.”

He loved fashion, had more shoes in his closet than most adults.

He had a quirky sense of style.

He wore a bandana — usually red — as a way to contain his disheveled bangs and keep them from his eyes. He almost always wore it when he was running. He wore one to his dad’s wedding, the day Dwayne got remarried. It matched his father’s boutonniere.

He loved his dog, Bailey, who could chew through anything.

He ate cereal and ice cream with a fork.

He hung his track medals from his bedroom ceiling, spaced evenly along the edges of the room, each placement carefully measured.

He was entrepreneurial, even from a young age. Always dreaming up new business opportunities. Even after moving into his own apartment, he’d return to Becky’s house to print out flyers for his next venture — lawn care, landscaping, power-washing — always with a plan to make it profitable. He took before and after photos of his jobs, never wanting to leave his customers dissatisfied.

He took pride in his work.

In the days before he died, he’d begun speaking with Becky about looking at colleges again. Asking if she would help him with applications. Maybe to Angelo State, where Hayden was about to graduate. Maybe somewhere else.

He had ideas, plans in motion.

“He literally said,” Becky recalls, “a few weeks before he died, ‘I have so much potential, and I don’t want to just sit around doing lawns all the time.’”


After Laura and Chris decided to go public with what had happened to Zach, Laura remembers crying about some of the feedback they received. She knew what some people were thinking, the assumptions they were making:

Your kid was a druggie.

Your kid was dumb.

He got what he deserved.

You’re a terrible parent.

Before the final coroner’s report came back, they’d already begun to share the suspected cause of death with a small circle of family and close acquaintances. The looks of disbelief on the faces of Zach’s friends solidified the Didier’s resolve to share his story more broadly. They realized there was a major lack of understanding, in every part of their community, about the dangers of fentanyl and counterfeit pills.

“There’s just a giant information gap that Zach fell into,” Laura says, “and we didn’t want any more kids falling into it.”

Laura soon realized it wasn’t her place to worry about what people might think. Her purpose, as a parent, was to protect other kids like Zach.

“I just want to be part of the solution,” she says. “I want to be part of protecting this vulnerable population.”

After Cameron’s death, Becky followed a similar trajectory from grief to advocacy.

Involved with an on-line grief support group in the months after Cam died, Becky remembers someone mentioning that a local news station, KXAN, wanting to do a story on fentanyl.

“It clicked in my brain then,” Becky says, “That’s a way I can be a voice.”

She and Cam’s father, Dwayne, appeared on that local news segment, which led to additional connections with advocacy groups around the country. Eventually, Becky learned of a nonprofit organization in California called Song for Charlie, and ended up enrolling in a webinar about introducing fentanyl and counterfeit pill education into school curriculums.

It felt like something she might be able to accomplish in Austin.

She first reached out to the school her sons had attended from kindergarten through high school. Hill Country Christian was a familiar place; the staff and administration there all knew Becky.

“I needed that small victory,” she says, “to realize this is something I can do.”

She’s since founded “A Change for Cam,” her family’s on-line platform for sharing Cameron’s story and spreading the message about the dangers of fentanyl. Dwayne continues to join her for presentations in the Austin area, and Hayden — now pursuing a doctorate in physical therapy at Texas Tech — recently recorded a video message from the perspective of a big brother, to be shared at those assemblies.

“None of it is going to bring Cameron back,” Becky acknowledges, “but I’m not the type of parent that can just sit around and let my son’s death be nothing more than a statistic. If I can have a voice and save one life, then he didn’t die in vain. So that—”

Her voice catches, wavers. Freighted with the enormity of loss.

“— that is exactly what I’m going to do.”


There are reminders of Zach and Cam everywhere.

In the Whitney High theater, where Zach had his brief star turn as Troy from High School Musical, a section near the back is dedicated to Zach, celebrating his propensity for hanging out off stage right and hyping up his fellow actors before they went on. It’s called “Zach’s Corner.”

On the high school’s track, a flight of hurdles is imprinted with “ZACH DIDIER” across the gateboards. Those hurdles are set up in Lane 4 — Zach’s favorite — for every 110-meter race at Whitney High’s home meets.

Hayden Stewart has a red bandana, just like the one Cam used to wear, hanging from the rearview mirror of his car.

There’s a song that reminds him of his brother, too — a religious hymn that was sung by a friend of Dwayne’s at Cameron’s funeral service. Called “Beulah Land,” the lyrics refers to a passage in the Book of Isaiah about the promise of an earthly paradise, a place where brokenness and pain no longer exist.

“That’s a song I continually listen to when I think about Cameron,” Hayden says, “it makes me miss him quite a bit.”

For his mom, Becky, the reminders are everywhere.

She recently moved out of the house where she’d lived with the boys, and had to do something she’d been avoiding in the year since Cameron died: pack up his childhood bedroom. She took down posters, gathered up photos and mementos he’d saved, but needed a ladder to remove the carefully-spaced medals dangling from the ceiling.

Staring up at those awards, she was reminded of how Cameron always downplayed his accomplishments:

Just a private school meet, he’d say.

It was only against other small schools.

The time wasn’t that fast…

“He’d always act like it was no big deal,” Becky says.

But when she climbed the ladder to retrieve the medals, and cradled each one in her hand, she discovered that Cameron had scribbled detailed information on the backside of every one.

“He wrote the time, the event and the date,” Becky says, “ so, it’s like, tell me that wasn’t a kid who was proud of what he was doing.”

She’s still haunted by that moment.

By the distance between Cam’s own, often hidden, pride at his accomplishments, and his tendency to deflect praise from his family. His inability to accept, in the end, that he was enough.

That these medals were enough.

“That got me,” Becky says, sobbing. “It wasn’t taking down his room that was hard, it was seeing all of that. Every dang medal…”


I’m kind of homesick for a country

Where I’ve never been before

No sad goodbyes will there be spoken

For time won’t matter anymore

- “Beulah Land,” Squire Parsons

Grief can lead to unexpected places.

Sometimes those places are familiar, like the elementary school your son attended, or the swings at the playground he swung on, or the track where he raced. Sometimes it’s a bedroom, where you walk in and sit on your son’s bed and weep at the sheer emptiness of it all — an inarticulate absence that can never be filled.

Sometimes the grief leaves you driving, retracing old routes. Glancing at an empty passenger seat. Fumbling through memories. A car, a smell, the angle of the sun. A song on the radio that just crushes you — Shawn Mendes or Frank Sinatra. An old church hymn about a promised land, just beyond reach.

Grief can collapse time, expand it. It can steal hours, entire days.

It might lead to an auditorium or a television news studio or a campus you never imagined visiting, where you attempt, once again, to wring meaning from an unspeakable loss.

And sometimes, grief can lead to places like this:

A well-appointed office in Washington, D.C., with decorative door frames and bronze busts and leather couches. Marble walls, polished hardwood floors. And government officials willing to listen to grieving parents talk about how drugs are killing their children in record numbers.

Which is where Laura Didier and Becky Schulze Stewart found themselves in mid-June.

They were invited by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to the first-ever Family Summit on the Overdose Epidemic. It was a two-day event, created by the DEA as a forum for listening and sharing with more than 80 parent-led organizations founded during the astonishing rise in overdose deaths.

Laura and Becky had previously been in touch through the Song for Charlie non-profit, where Laura serves as an outreach coordinator, but this was the first time they connected in person.

“Being able to meet Becky was wonderful,” Laura says. “We’ve worked together on awareness efforts virtually; we’ve discovered so many similarities between our sons. There’s a sisterhood among grieving mothers that creates deep bonds. When we greeted each other in D.C., it felt like hugging an old friend.”

Becky felt the same connection.

“Neither of us had to speak,” she says. “The unfortunate club we’re in is such an indescribable bond…Knowing she knows how I feel, without saying a word, is priceless.”

It was a busy two days in Washington. The summit sessions, both agreed, were informative and compassionate. The DEA representatives, accessible and willing to listen. Laura and Becky each left with a sense of hopefulness and gratitude for the chance to have their sons’ stories heard.

But Becky had another purpose in Washington.

The last time she traveled to D.C., she was on a trip for work and brought Cameron along so they could check out tourist spots over the weekend. They’d visited all the familiar attractions: White House, National Mall, museums and monuments. The return to D.C., for Becky, meant coming back to a city rife with memories of places she’d been with her son.

And so, around the commitments at the DEA summit, Becky asked Laura and another new “sister in grief” if they would accompany her in spreading Cameron’s ashes at several of the locations they’d visited on that earlier trip.

It was a solemn, sacred mission, Laura says. “Touching and heartbreaking.”

Two mothers, brought together by tragedy. Now sisters in grief. Meeting in the nation’s capital to share stories and hugs and tears and advocacy for their sons.

A pair of teenage boys — Zachary and Cameron.

Hurdlers, yes, but so much more. Two lives, bursting with possibility. Lives that were halted, forever, at 17 and 19.

And unlike the track events those boys loved, races with a beginning and an end, the grief has no finish line. It just continues on.

For the Didier and Stewart families, the only navigable path through that grief is to tell their sons’ stories.

And so, they will — they do.

Over and over.

____________

Additional information, resources and educational materials may be found at Song for Charlie. Support the educational efforts of the Stewart family at A Change for Cam. Donations to support the Didier family’s work can be made at Zach Didier Memorial & Advocacy Fund.

Dave Devine is the recipient of the 2022 Jim Dunaway Memorial Award For Track And Field Journalism Excellence. You can read more of his stories HERE.

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