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One family’s story of losing a child to fentanyl

By Brittany Anderson and Amira Van Leeuwen

HAYS COUNTY — What feels like something that would only happen in a far-off community, or is just a “big city problem,” has quickly become reality for Hays County residents: fentanyl is here, and it’s killing children as young as 15. 

Fentanyl is an approved pharmaceutical drug that is used every day in hospitals and prescribed to patients who have severe or chronic pain. According to Dr. Lucas Hill, a clinical associate professor at the University of Texas in Austin and director of the Texas Opioid Training Initiative, it is safe and effective to use in a clinical setting as prescribed. However, fentanyl can be illicitly manufactured into counterfeit pills, meaning that it was not produced by a pharmaceutical company, but instead in a clandestine lab or someone’s basement or bathtub. 

Some drug dealers will use fentanyl to mix with other drugs as a cheaper option to sell their product while producing a powerful high. But doing so in such a haphazard way can be incredibly lethal — only two milligrams can kill the average adult.

“It’s a potent synthetic opioid, and when the dose is not calibrated carefully, or when it’s not produced in a pharmaceutical setting where everything is controlled and predictable, then that’s when you introduce a lot of risks,” Dr. Hill said. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2021, there were over 107,000 deaths in the U.S. from drug poisoning overdoses, with approximately 70% of those related to opioids and fentanyl. 

Kyle Police Chief Jeff Barnett said that the department has investigated 25 fentanyl-related overdoses in 2022. Seven resulted in deaths, four of which were Hays CISD students — two 15-year-olds and two 17-year-olds. 

The district quickly worked to partner with local law enforcement and other agencies to address this problem. Following news of the first student fentanyl death in July, the community continued to be shaken by three more, all within a month. 

Noah Rodriguez, 15, was one of those students. 

Noah’s parents, Janel Rodriguez and Brandon Dunn, described him as being genuine, kind, and a jokester. A Johnson High School sophomore, he was athletic and loved football and basketball, had many friends and was a great brother to his two little sisters. His youngest sibling, a baby brother, was born just two weeks prior to his death.

Courtesy of Janel Rodriguez
Noah played football for Johnson High School.

“Noah was not a bad kid at all,” Janel said. “He was not disrespectful. He got into some trouble here and there, but he wasn’t from a troubled home. We’re a good family. We’re stable.” 

Janel said they started noticing a change in Noah around the time COVID-19 first hit in March 2020. A former honor roll student who took AP classes, his grades began to “tank.” He started staying out later and sneaking out, and they would notice slurring in his speech at times. Most notably, he stopped hanging out with friends he grew up with and started introducing them to friends they had never heard of. 

“Noah was always very clean, wanting to take a shower, brush his teeth,” Janel added. “He started doing less and less of that. At first, I was like, ‘he’s just getting older.’ But then I thought, ‘no, something’s not right.’” 

At some point, Noah’s experimentation with marijuana escalated to using pills. In May, he overdosed and was in the hospital for a week, leading to what Janel and Brandon thought was a wakeup call for everybody. After being discharged, he was engaging with the family again. 

“Just the happy Noah we had lost,” Janel said, adding that they would do daily check-ins with him. 

Janel recalled Aug. 20, the last day they all spent together: swimming and barbecuing with family while planning for his 16th birthday on Oct. 9. Later in the evening, as Noah was being dropped off at a friend’s house, she made Brandon not drive off until Noah was in the house.

“I wanted to see him walk inside,” Janel said. “That was the last time I saw my son.” 

Hours later, she would receive a phone call at midnight from his friend’s mom: “I think Noah overdosed.” Her daughter was heard screaming in the background. 

It was about half an hour later before Janel and Brandon could leave their house, as they had to find someone to stay with their four-year-old, 18-month-old and two-week old. They frantically called family members to go to the house where Noah was, who were able to arrive in minutes. 

Paramedics worked on Noah for 45 minutes, using two injections of Narcan, a life-saving medicine that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. But by the time Janel and Brandon arrived, it was too late. Officers on scene found counterfeit Tylenol-Codeine #3 pills. 

At Noah’s service, Janel encouraged every child that came up to her to say something if they knew something, saying that “you’re not being a good friend if you don’t try to stop or help the situation.” 

“I know you keep hearing that parents need to talk to their children, but children need to talk to children. Because right now, their friends are their biggest influences,” Janel said. 

Janel and Brandon tried putting Noah into rehab but kept getting denied, saying it was because he had to consent, even as a minor — something that she is interested in bringing to county and state leaders to change.

“One of the friends [of Noah’s]told his mom, ‘I can’t stop doing these pills.’ But he doesn’t want to go to rehab, and the mom is reaching out to me every day, like, ‘At night, I’m in his room watching him sleep because I want to make sure he’s breathing,’” Janel said. “I’ve been through that. I would wake up so many times at night just to go check on Noah and make sure he was breathing. We shouldn’t have to live like this.” 

“Overdosing is not always a wakeup call,” Brandon added.

Still, Janel and Brandon are confident that Noah was trying to stay on the right path following his May overdose, noting that he had recently had his wisdom teeth removed and wasn’t even taking his pain medication for that. 

“I know that whatever he took [that night], he didn’t take over to that house,” Brandon said. “Whether it was peer pressure, or it was just the opportunity, it was a bad choice. … It’s not the ‘bad crowd’ from high school. It’s not that anymore. It’s not only ‘the bad kids do this stuff.’” 

“I think this was probably just a chance that he had and he didn’t want to say no, or really just didn’t think that [anything bad would happen],” Janel said. “I don’t blame anybody. I definitely don’t blame God. Noah had a choice; Noah made a decision. But Noah didn’t make that pill himself.” 

With three young children at home, Janel and Brandon have not had much time to process their grief together, but their faith and church family have been huge support systems for healing. 

“I’ve actually talked to [Brandon] about starting something. Going around the schools and talking about what we’ve been through, being an outreach for children,” Janel said. “I’ve always had a heart to do something with children, and I’m kind of feeling like, maybe this was the purpose. There needs to be something for these kids, somewhere for them to go.” 

For now, she carries around only a piece of Noah with her — a small container of his ashes. The family still plans on celebrating his birthday next month with his favorite tres leches cake they ordered. 

“I feel like Noah’s death has a purpose. And we’re gonna fulfill that, even if it’s just saving one person,” Janel said.

What should you know about fentanyl?

According to Dr. Hill, when you take too much of an opioid or have too potent of an opioid, that drug finds its way to opioid receptors on the brain stem, slowing down your body’s intrinsic drive to breathe. Eventually, your breathing can become too slow to bring in enough oxygen for your brain and even stop completely. 

There are two key patient groups that doctors are worried about, one being people who are already on very high doses of opioids. 

“It is important that those people not be suddenly cut off or forced to decrease their dose substantially. We now have a really strong base of evidence showing that when you force people off of opioids who’ve been prescribed them. … they’re more likely to die,” Dr. Hill said. 

The second patient population doctors worry about is people with an opioid-use disorder with severe opioid addiction.

“Those people need to be able to have better access to harm reduction supplies, whether that’s Naloxone [Narcan] or even things like sterile syringes, overdose prevention centers or evidence-based medication treatment. … like methadone or buprenorphine,” Dr. Hill said. 

Hill said if you are a person who uses illegal drugs, purchasing fentanyl test strips and having them on hand can be a “reasonable” thing to do. In Austin, they can be found at the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance and LifePoint. 

“They [the test strips]were designed to test the urine of people who are prescribed fentanyl to make sure that they’re actually using their prescribed medication and not just selling it, but they can also be used directly to test the drug sample,” Dr. Hill said. 

To use a fentanyl test strip, take a small amount of the drug and dip it into the cooker with the water and drug mixture, or break off a small piece and dissolve it in a small amount of water. 

However, test strips are not a perfect solution. Dr. Hill said it is easy to get an incorrect result using the strips, as they are only effective at identifying a few of the fentanyl analogs. 

Several years ago, Dr. Hill was able to get funds from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to buy strips and distribute them statewide. But these strips are in an ambiguous legal area in Texas, and by some definitions, might be considered paraphernalia because they’re used for the testing of illegal drugs. 

Hill said that if someone is experiencing an opioid-related overdose, they may appear to be asleep or intoxicated. 

“The first thing to do is to try to wake them up, and if shaking their shoulders a little bit and saying their name doesn’t work, the next thing I would instruct people to do is the sternal rub,” Dr. Hill said.

The sternal rub is where you make a fist and use your knuckles and grind them into the middle of the person’s chest. Dr. Hill said it won’t cause any permanent damage and is better than hitting or slapping the person. 

“If they’re still responsive, they’ll wake up,” Dr. Hill said. “And if they’re responsive then you don’t need to give Naloxone; they may just be very intoxicated.”

Dr. Hill added that you cannot experience intoxication or overdose from casual contact with fentanyl, including fentanyl patches. 

“Getting a little bit on your skin or even stuck underneath your nail bed, passively inhaling it or getting close to somebody who’s overdosed and maybe has some on their face — that is not a risk to first responders, that is not a risk to anyone,” Dr. Hill said. 

The only side effect associated with administering Naloxone is that it’ll rapidly kick opioids off of the receptors, which can cause withdrawal symptoms. A person who doesn’t use opioids very often won’t experience anything, but to someone with a severe opioid addiction, this can make them feel very sick. 

Dr. Hill doesn’t believe that children are being specifically targeted, but rather the prevalence of pressed pills that contain fentanyl is rising, and pressed pills, or things that appear to be pharmaceutical, are less intimidating for an inexperienced user.

“That’s going to increase the risk for maybe a college kid who wouldn’t use powdered heroin but would be willing to try a Vicodin pill. And likewise, I think that we can anticipate it would also be more appealing to a middle schooler or high schooler than would be a powdered drug,” Dr. Hill said.

Dr. Hill also said that there shouldn’t be any worry that cannabis or nicotine users are going to be accidentally exposed to fentanyl, saying that that is a “myth.” 

While there is a lot of stigma associated with using illegal drugs, being equipped for any situation and educating one another can be the most useful tool to saving someone who may be experiencing an overdose. 

Narcan nasal spray is available for free from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, or on www.morenarcanplease.com. 

Hays County Sheriff Gary Cutler also said that they are collaborating with fire and EMS agencies to develop an overdose mapping system to help track the presence of fentanyl and has asked Hays County Crimestoppers to increase the reward amount for information leading to the arrest of dealers. Residents can also have the department speak to their group or organization about fentanyl by calling (512) 393-7896. 

About Author

Brittany Anderson graduated from Texas State University in August 2020 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. She previously worked at KTSW 89.9, Texas State University's radio station, for nearly two years in the web content department as a writer and assistant manager. She has reported for the Hays Free Press/News-Dispatch since July 2021.

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