RANGER, Ind. — Becky Savage always starts her talks to students and parents the same way. She shows them pictures of her teenage sons, Nick and Jack, who loved hockey, Taco Bell, and late-night hangouts.
Then, she tells them what happened on June 14, 2015.
Savage was picking up dirty clothes from 18-year-old Jack’s room that Sunday morning. He was sleeping in after a night of graduation parties with Nick and other friends. Jack didn’t respond as she picked up his laundry. She shook him, but he didn’t wake up. She knew to check his pulse — she’s a nurse. He didn’t have one. She started CPR on her son and shouted for help.
She heard sirens wail down their street. She watched a firefighter try to resuscitate Jack. She screamed at him when she saw him give up.
Then Savage realized more first responders were rushing into her basement. A second 911 call had been made from her house at the same time — this one by friends of 19-year-old Nick, who had just finished his freshman year at Indiana University. They’d all spent the night in the basement, and now Nick wasn’t waking up.
A paramedic came upstairs and asked for a coroner.
“That was truly the last thing I could remember,” said Savage.
Nick and Jack Savage both died of an accidental overdose of oxycodone and alcohol. The next month, two teenagers were charged with providing the pills and drinks that killed them. Savage felt the bottom drop out of her life.
She has since made it her mission to talk about the dangers of opioid abuse to anyone who will listen. She talks at school rallies and parent meetings, and to strangers who approach her while she’s out to dinner.
She feels an urgency to tell her story widely: Her sons were two of the 4,235 young adults between ages 15 and 24 who died of drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2015. Drug overdoses among that age group have nearly tripled since 2000.
It’s a crisis that knows no boundaries: Across all age groups, there were more than 52,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2015.
Last year, Savage started the 525 Foundation — she named it after Nick and Jack’s hockey numbers, 5 and 25 — to further her advocacy work.
“I constantly told my kids, ‘Don’t do drugs. Don’t drink,’” she said. “I never talked to them about prescription drugs.”
Savage keeps talking because she believes her story — the pain she calls “this big black abyss” — has the power to cut deeper than the lectures and the statistics kids hear in school.
President Trump suggested last week that teens could be dissuaded from trying drugs if adults would just tell them that opioids are “really bad for you in every way.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions has talked about reviving D.A.R.E., the anti-drug program that sent uniformed police officers into classrooms around the country starting in the ’80s to preach about the dangers of narcotics.
But the grief of a mother who lost two sons in one night carries a different kind of weight.
“The first year after, you can’t feel. You can’t even put thoughts together,” she said. “It’s not just someone going up there showing statistics. I show that this is real.”
Her work has become all the more relevant in this part of Northwest Indiana, where the community is coming to terms with the scope of the opioid crisis after the murder of Dr. Todd Graham last month. Graham was shot and killed by a patient’s husband after refusing to prescribe opioids for her chronic pain. The tragedy has forced doctors, law enforcement, and local residents to come together and figure out how to move forward.
“This isn’t ‘Just say no.’ That doesn’t work enough,” said St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter, who oversees criminal cases in the area.
Since the murder, Savage has been an active part of the conversation about what comes next. She’s participated in a community-wide meeting on the crisis. She plans to organize a pill drop to get rid of unused prescriptions, and has a full slate of school speeches coming up this fall.
She sees her role as unique: Law enforcement tries to stop illicit sales. Counselors try to break addictions. Her goal is to prevent teens from trying opioids that first time. “I’m just putting out little fires, one at a time,” she said.
When she talks to students, Savage drives home the point that just because painkillers swiped from a family medicine cabinet might have been prescribed by a doctor doesn’t mean they’re safe.
“I tell kids they’re not pharmacists. They don’t know what’s in those. How would they know? They haven’t gone to medical school,” she said.
Parents’ eyes grow big when they hear her story. Savage is unnervingly relatable — if it could happen to her kids, it could happen to theirs, too. The room is dead silent when she stops speaking. She knows there are questions brewing. Once the first timid hand pops up, a dozen more follow.
Her message to parents is twofold: Tell your kids over and over not to take opioids. “Get in their faces,” she said.
And get rid of any unused prescriptions.
A review published this month in JAMA Surgery found that 90 percent of patients who were prescribed opioids after surgery didn’t properly dispose of their leftover medicines. That leaves a whole lot of pills in medicine cabinets, all too accessible to curious teens.
Savage recently organized a pill drop, where local officials collected hundreds of pounds of prescription medications. Her youngest son came along — he asks to come to many of her events — and was shocked by the boxes teeming with unused prescriptions.
“He said, ‘Mom, just think, one of those pills could kill somebody,’” she said.
She knows that all too well.
She lost Jack’s crooked smile and abundant kindness. The morning after he died, a young man knocked on their door holding a card and a big, beautiful bouquet of flowers. He had driven all night to see the Savage family. He and Jack had gone to middle school together, he told them, but he’d since moved away. Jack had sat with him on the bus when no one else would.
She lost Nick’s quiet approachability and his sharp mind for science. He was studying microbiology and chemistry in college. One weekend during his freshman year, Nick hitched a ride back to Granger with a friend. He didn’t tell his mom, because he wanted to see the look in her eyes when he surprised her. It was snowing when he came in through the back door and his family bombarded him with hugs.
Savage said she always knew her sons would do great things. She’s had to pick up the torch.
“Nick and Jack are living on through this,” she said. “I don’t want their story to end the way it did.”