A loaf of bread. A tank of gas. Pick up the dry cleaning. There are myriad detours one may take in the drive home on any given evening.
But the road home for David Hayes almost never varies. On most nights, he drives his car in a trance-like state, methodically wending his way through the streets of Omaha. The vehicle comes to rest after ascending what starts out as an almost imperceptible hill. The scenery never changes. The vehicle once again deposits its driver at his final destination—Evergreen Cemetery.
That’s where he goes to visit his son, Dillon.
A toxicology report listed the cause of Dillon’s 2010 death as due to a mix of cold medication and oxycodone. The medicine was an innocuous, over-the-counter purchase, a $6.99 solution to a case of the sniffles. The oxycodone was a much less innocent acquisition, a $40 score the then 15-year-old sophomore made in the halls of Millard North High School.
Hayes is now a member of the saddest of fraternities—fathers who have lost their sons to prescription drug abuse. “It’s a crappy club I belong to,” says Hayes, who has since dedicated his life to serving Dillon’s memory by talking about the dangers of a problem that will claim nearly 15,000 lives in America this year. And he’ll talk to anyone who will listen.
“If I can stop one kid from going down the wrong road, if I can help one parent, it will be worth all the pain. It would be…priceless.” —David Hayes
Hayes has spoken before over 7,500 school kids in the second half of 2013 alone, along with hundreds of adults at service clubs, churches, and other settings. “It’s hard for me to speak. Really hard,” Hayes says. “But seeing the results is worth it. If I can stop one kid from going down the wrong road, if I can help one parent, it will be worth all the pain. It would be…priceless.”
Oxycodone, most often available under the trade name of OxyContin, is a semi-synthetic opioid made from poppy-derived thebaine. It is a narcotic analgesic generally prescribed for relief of severe pain. Its connection to the poppy has earned it the street handle of “hillbilly heroin,” just one entry in a lexicon that includes such slang as 80s (as in 80 mg), kickers, killers, blues, and most commonly, oxy.
Alcohol, along with many cold medications, shares the opiate affect of suppressing breathing, which is why mixing it with OxyContin is so dangerous. A person who takes a swig of cough syrup or a single drink before ingesting oxy will likely notice no adverse affects. Later during sleep, however, the combined effect of the continuous-release oxy (thus the “Contin” half of OxyContin name) may cause the lungs to simply shut down and cease functioning.
That’s what happened to Dillon.
Hayes, perhaps most widely known as owner of the acclaimed V. Mertz and other popular restaurants, turned to counseling and clergy after Dillon’s death, but an abyss of sorrow still haunted him. To borrow from the lingo of 12 Step programs, he got better when he got busy.
So Hayes and longtime family friend Carey Pomykata launched Dillon’s House, a nonprofit that operates under the auspices of Youth for Christ. A basement playhouse that was the scene of many of Dillon’s greatest childhood adventures inspired the name. In his playhouse, the young boy could take the guise of astronaut, spy, or action hero, lost in all manner of valiant reveries. They were roles that Dillon would never have a chance to play in real, adult life. A reimagined though much grander version of the playhouse, a gift from Hayes to the children of Sonshine Christian Preschool, now stands on the grounds of Harvey Oaks Baptist Church, where he is a member.
“The kids here are, of course, too young to understand,” says Mollie Logan, director of the preschool, “but one day they will come to learn the full meaning of Dillon’s House.”
Hayes’ speaking gigs are aimed at the older siblings of the tykes who romp in Dillon’s House, as was the case during his presentation at Millard Public Schools’ Andersen Middle School.
Some motions—like riding a bike or the graceful swing of a professional golfer—are unthinking ones. They are acts of all but unconscious muscle memory. Hayes has his own. Not one minute into his school chat, he was reaching for a tissue. It is a gesture that defines the gentle, soft-spoken man. He first demonstrated it over coffee in an initial interview. He repeated it at the school and then again in a photo session. Even at an otherwise festive social function, talk of Dillon soon had Hayes fumbling through his pockets.
“Remember that old, old American Express travelers checks commercial with Karl Malden?” Hayes asks as an index finger darts to a cheek to intercept a salty intruder. “That’s me, but with Kleenex. I never leave home without them.”
“My dad didn’t want to wake after that, after Dillon died,” adds Hayes’ other son, Noah, now a 17-year-old junior at Elkhorn South High School. “Every morning was the same. He’d wake up, and it would take a moment or two for things to sink in, even months later. Was that real? Did that really happen? Then the pain would come again.”
“Kids my age think they’re invincible. Nothing can stop them. It’s an ego thing…But what kids don’t understand is not only that drugs can take control; they can take your life. That’s what happened to my brother.” —Noah Hayes
His struggle is different. While Hayes is bewitched by the specter of one lone oxy, Noah must witness firsthand the ongoing ravages of prescription drug abuse among his teens.
“Kids my age think they’re invincible,” Noah explains. “Nothing can stop them. It’s an ego thing. Drugs can’t possibly have negative consequences, they think. They could see this story and not even blink. They just don’t think that way. But what kids don’t understand is not only that drugs can take control, they can take your life. That’s what happened to my brother. He went to bed one night and never woke up.” Close your eyes, Noah says, and Monday morning locker chatter can be indistinguishable from that of the scholarly banter found in a lecture hall for third-year pharmacy students. “It’s really prevalent in our school and must be in others. It’s like a dirty little secret.”
Omaha Magazine invited three different area school districts to participate in a variety of ways in compiling this story. Some of those media requests were decidedly weighty and challenging. None accepted the invitation.
Pomykata, who acts as the director of Dillon’s House, has also had the soul-crushing experience of facing the persistence of dirty little secrets. She once happened to bump into thirteen of Dillon’s friends on a pilgrimage to Evergreen Cemetery. “It was the sweetest scene,” she says, “crying and laughing and then crying some more as we remembered Dillon.” But the conversation took a grim, darker turn as time wore on and the teens opened up about life after Dillon. “Twelve of the 13 admitted to using prescription drugs again since Dillon’s death.”
When it comes to the volatile power of a narcotic like oxy, there is no such thing as innocent, youthful experimentation, and repeated use can easily lead to addiction.
“I stole money from my mom,” says Jason (not his real name) on how he funded an insidious oxy addiction. “I stole a TV from my grandma, even though it was a lame piece of junk that I sold for only $30.” Jason dropped out of school at 16 before hitting bottom and landing in rehab under court-ordered supervision. Now 19, Jason is in recovery and back in school, studying computer programming while working a steady job, both ideas that were once entirely foreign to him. “Recovery has been a long road to travel. My family expected to get the old Jason back, but the new Jason is still pretty okay with them. The first thing I did when I had any money was to buy grandma a new TV, nicer than the one I took. She had already replaced the TV and laughed about it, but it was something I had to do for myself as much as for her.”
“Recovery has been a long road to travel. My family expected to get the old Jason back, but the new Jason is still pretty okay with them.” —”Jason,” a recovering addict
All addictions are family diseases. Often beginning as the elephant in the room, addiction acts like a malicious virus, infecting those closest to the user.
“I went to Al-Anon because I thought those people could tell me how to get my daughter to stop [prescription drugs],” says Sarah, who also requested anonymity for this story. “I was wrong about that but in a good way. What I found there really surprised me. Al-Anon helps me answer questions about me. I learned how to live again. It’s about sharing experience, strength, and hope. My daughter ended up getting better even before I did,” Sarah adds with a chuckle. “She still goes to NA [Narcotics Anonymous], I go to Al-Anon, and sometimes we go to each others’ meetings together.”
Reed Campbell, Clinical Director of NOVA Treatment Community in Omaha, has worked with scores of “Jasons” and “Sarahs” on what can be shared roads to recovery between parent and child. “In the stage between late childhood and early adulthood, curiosity runs rampant,” he says. “Anything that can get youth out of a place that is uncomfortable by providing some sense of security is a thing that kids might easily cling to. The grip of drugs like oxycodone and other heavy-duty pharmaceuticals is powerful but teens don’t think of the consequences.”
Pomykata agrees. “Kids see this stuff in their parents’ medicine cabinet and think ‘A doctor says this is good for my mom’s back. This must be safe or a doctor wouldn’t have given it to her.’”
Hayes reached for a tissue when Pomykata painted the picture of Dillon’s friends at the cemetery but prefers to point to happier, more encouraging brushes with those touched by prescription drug abuse. “A young man stopped me in the grocery store recently. He started crying as he introduced himself, saying that he had heard me talk at Millard South High School and had struggled with a drug problem, including prescription drug abuse. Then, he said something that reminds me of why I get out of bed in the morning. ‘That could be me,’ he said, ‘I could have been Dillon.’”
“What I found there really surprised me. Al-Anon helps me answer questions about me. I learned how to live again. It’s about sharing experience, strength and hope.” —”Sarah,” Al-Anon member
The tireless advocate has recently broadened the reach of Dillon’s House, taking its message on tour to five school districts in New York, where he says officials use the word “epidemic” to describe their prescription drug problem. Never one to rest, he loaded the evenings of his itinerary fulfilling invitations from universities and church groups.
Back in Omaha, Hayes dashes off to another school and then another and then another. He consults maps in planning his next national road trip. On many days, he is in danger of forgetting what’s next on his dizzying calendar.
But there will always be Evergreen Cemetery. And there will always be the shadow cast by a little blue pill. Hayes’ road home is always the same.