GRANGER, 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.

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A photo of Becky Savage’s son Nick is seen in her home. Kristen Norman for STAT

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.

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Justin, Nick, Matthew, and Jack Savage (from left) with their parents, Becky and Mike Savage, in Siesta Key, Fla., where the family regularly vacationed. Courtesy
Savage family
Mike, Matthew, Becky, and Justin Savage on a family vacation in 2016. Becky Savage shows the two photos in her presentations to illustrate her family’s loss. Courtesy

“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.

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Becky Savage holds a photo of her sons Jack and Nick. Kristen Norman for STAT

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.”

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  • Dear Becky – my condolences on your tragic loss, and my complete admiration for turning your grief into a fight to spare others from that grief. It is an absolute epidemic. I have two young children, and I’m terrified.

  • Thank you for your ongoing task of informing our young people and parents. We too, lost or two boys, but thankfully not to drugs. Ours was cancer and a motorcycle. The void in our family is immeasurable. Grandchildren are too busy…thus making a lonely life for us. So thankful for our faith and church family. God bless you for what you are doing. Your sons would be so very proud. You did a good job raising them. They just couldn’t say “no” when they should have. Keep on keeping on!!!

  • Tragic loss for this family. It’s all about the choices we make. Making others aware of the dangers of opioid use is the best one can do. Nobody forces a “choice”on someone else. Getting the word out is the best thing to do.

  • Mrs. Savage, I have lost an adult child to cancer but cannot imagine your pain of losing two sons at once. My heart aches for you. I will share your message up and down the East coast. God bless.

  • It wasn’t opioids that killed her kids. The youngest son was an illegal drinker. The boys were ignorant under their Mama’s roof along with Mama. She had to have known they were drinking while she had her Oxycodone stash in her cabinet.

    • Were your judgmental comments really necessary, Clay Simpson? If you had read the article, you would have seen that two teenaged boys were charged with providing the drugs, not their devastated mother. Be kind.

    • A**hole…
      When…not IF…tragedy strikes close to home for you, I sincerely hope that you’re met with nothing but kindness & compassion rather than some internet troll.
      Were you there? Do you KNOW that the kids weren’t out drinking & partying elsewhere and then came home to sleep?
      Do you believe in any God? If so…who is the judge in this life? You?! Didn’t think so.

      I hope you find peace in your life…get busy finding some rather than doing what you’re doing.

    • I am truly blown away by the heartless insensitivity of some of these comments. This woman has endured the worst possible loss any parent can imagine, TWICE! And yet, somehow, finds the strength……

  • Medications are being over regulated now. Patients who legitimately should be allowed an opiod prescription are being denied and treated like drug seekers. It is inhumane to deny patients who are in pain medications in order to prevent drug abusers from obtaining meds. We are treating patients like drug addicts and coddling real drug addicts. This is incomprehensible to me.

    • I’m sorry, Barry Cadden, but if you are the man who is responsible for scores of maimings and deaths from your contaminated steroids (illegally manufactured in what was supposed to be a compounding pharmacy,) I’d prefer you keep your thoughts to yourself as you await sentencing.

      If you’re another Barry Cadden, I am sorry for you having to share a name with that apparent sociopath.

  • Two boys were not charged with giving the Savage brothers the drugs an alcohol. The two cases had nothing to do with each other at all. The boys took the pills, they were not force fed the pills. It was the boys OWN decision to take the pills. Quit trying to make it seem as if it were someones fault besides the boys own.

    • Joe, when you were 19, 20 years old, did you ever make a mistake you regretted, and live to tell about it? Ever? The problem with the opioid family (pills, heroin, fentanyl) is that there is no error margin for that mistake. Make a poor decision, and THERE IS NO TOMORROW.
      Beside that, the Savage’s are talking as though it is THEIR mistake for never having talked about prescription opioids with their children… she and her husband are blaming THEMSELVES, and talking about it so other parents do not make the same mistake. Give them credit for speaking out in that manner. They are brave souls…

  • “Opioids” indeed. It’s sad and tragic that so many drug addicts are overdosing and dying. Let’s do all we can to help. But that should not include demonizing prescription pain medication. Take pain medication that’s sensibly prescribed, purchased at a pharmacy, and taken as directed for pain and those “opioids” are perfectly safe. Take oxycontin to get high or shoot heroin, and you may die.

    • That’s not true. Taking opioids for more than two months as directed will make most people who do so addicted. Taking opioids for an extended period according to directions will increase long-term pain for many patients. It might make sense to prescribe opioids for an extended period makes sense for terminal patients, but it does not make sense to turn other patients into drug addicts.

  • This is such a sad crisis. There are those who truly need pain meds for long term, chronic pain, and need these meds to have any quality of life. Thankfully, due to the latest medical technics of MRI, and CT scans, the medical professionals finally have tools to weed out the fakers, from those in need of care. It’s a shame that the pharmaceutical companies can’t come out with a drug that takes care of pain without the high, that the drug abusers seek.

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