by Jill Ragar Esfeld
PRAIRIE VILLAGE — Imagine having a child with cancer, diabetes or heart disease and not knowing the protocol to deal with it.
Not having a single resource to help you.
That’s the situation faced by St. Ann, Prairie Village, parishioner Gary Henson when his son Garrett struggled with drug addiction.
He knew Garrett needed a rehabilitation program. But which one?
“I didn’t know where to go,” said Henson. “I didn’t know what to do. I talked to friends of mine that were therapists. But I didn’t have anywhere else to go.
“There are protocols and best practices for every disease in this country except for addiction.”
A national crisis
Addiction is recognized by the American Medical Association as a brain disease called substance-use disorder. And the statistics defining it are shocking.
With 52,000 fatalities a year, drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States.
Driven by prescription opioid pain relievers, it is a national crisis that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has labeled epidemic.
“Opioid is prescribed by a doctor,” said Henson, who is on the board of Shatterproof, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the crisis. “That makes people think it’s safer, more acceptable.
“What people don’t understand is it’s like having heroin on your shelf.”
The reality faced by those suffering from the substance-use disorder is heartbreaking.
The stigma attached to the disease makes support and quality treatment information almost impossible to find.
Lauren Heyen, whose daughter was a close friend of Garrett’s, witnessed his family’s struggle to find reliable help.
“This truly is an illness,” said Heyen, who also belongs to St. Ann. “It’s not a weakness or failure on anybody’s part.
“It should not be that hard for somebody to find help, especially when the crisis is this big.”
Garrett participated in rehab programs in Colorado and was drug-free for nine months.
But one week after his treatment was completed, he died of an opioid overdose.
He was 20 years old.
A father’s response
Garrett’s relapse was true to a deadly pattern that has taken the lives of many before him.
“They have what they call a relapse party,” said Henson. “And it’s typical — but I didn’t understand that it was typical.
“The guys at the rehab didn’t tell me about that. Because of the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws, they don’t have a lot of conversation with the parents.
“If I’d known that, I probably would have camped out in Colorado and stayed with him.”
Henson felt not only the pain of losing his child — but also the frustration of knowing he never had enough support and information to adequately help him.
He didn’t want another parent to go through that experience.
Through an advised fund set up by Henson’s company, donations were collected after Garrett’s death.
“It quickly grew to a considerable amount of money,” said Henson. “And I felt like I had a fiduciary obligation to use the money in the best manner.”
Henson took a six-month sabbatical to study the substance-use disorder crisis and that’s when he discovered Shatterproof — a national organization founded by Gary Mendell, who lost his son to addiction in 2011.
Shatterproof was in the process of doing exactly what Henson dreamed of — working to end the stigma attached to addiction and provide evidence-based resources to support prevention, treatment and recovery.
Shatterproof was also advocating for federal and state policy changes such a nationwide prescription drug monitoring program and wider access to Naloxone, a lifesaving overdose-reversal drug.
“So I called [Mendell] and we had a great conversation,” said Henson. “And I told him I wanted to collapse my foundation into his.”
After a visit to Shatterproof headquarters in New York, Henson joined the board of directors.
A strengthened faith
Through the experience of losing his child and finding, in the wake of that grief, a path to help others, Henson said his faith has been strengthened.
“Which is the opposite of what most people would guess,” he said. “Here’s the reason: There were multiple signs after Garrett passed away that he was OK.”
“They were very clear,” continued Henson, “and there was no possible way they could have happened without some divine intervention.”
Henson theorized that immediately after a tragedy, a person’s state of perceptivity is heightened.
“And you allow yourself to be open to things and you see things differently,” he said. “And then you start to go back to the grind of your daily life and your eyes aren’t open like they were.”
Heyen, likewise, said both she and her daughter relied on their faith to get through the tragedy of losing a friend.
“You always have your faith,” she said, “but you realize how important it is to live it.
“There are things that are bigger than us and we need God to help us through them.”
Faith in action
Like Henson, the Heyens are doing something positive to impact the addiction epidemic.
Heyen is on the steering committee for Shatterproof’s first 5K walk/runs to take place at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (See page 16.)
The event will raise funds to help build Shatterproof’s online resource for families dealing with the disease of addiction.
“This is the best way to reach a lot of people,” said Heyen, “and to bring a lot of people together for awareness and support — knowing they’re not alone.
“The more people you have helping you, understanding what you’re going through, the better off you are.”
If they choose, participants will be able to sign up as a team.
“Garrett’s team already has 100 people,” said Henson. “They’re supporting me and remembering Garrett.”
Heyen’s daughter is part of Garrett’s team. She collected donations on her birthday in lieu of gifts. And though she no longer lives in the area, she’ll return home to run in memory of her friend.
“We’re doing this to support people who are fighting addictions or families and friends who have lost someone to addiction,” said Heyen. “But we’re also doing it to raise awareness so we can make this issue go away.”
That is Henson’s ultimate goal — to save as many lives as possible by raising awareness about the disease that robbed him of his son, to erase its stigma and to give a nation in crisis the tools it needs to fight an epidemic.
“I don’t believe that things happen for a reason,” he said. “I think God’s greatest gift is that he gave us free will.
“And I think that I have been very blessed to be put in a position to effect change.”
Shatterproof’s Rise Up Against Addiction
5K June 11
Shatterproof is having five walks/runs across the country, with Kansas City being the first.
Area businesses, health care groups and those in the recovery community are getting behind the event. Consider forming a team of family members, co-workers and friends.
Proceeds will go to support Shatterproof’s advocacy work, treatment work and the online resource center.
Get involved now by visiting the website at: www.shatterproof.org/rise-against-addiction