'It's Russian roulette:' A grieving Kentucky mother is on a crusade against fentanyl
Like all states, Kentucky finds itself in a new drug war. Fentanyl is now the leading cause of overdose deaths in the commonwealth. The state Office of Drug Control Policy says fentanyl was involved in over 70% of the 2,250 overdose deaths in Kentucky in 2021.
Fentanyl is not only claiming the lives of those with addiction issues, but also sober, unsuspecting youth. Someone all too familiar what that is Julie Hofmans of Louisville.
Hofmans appeared last week in Simpson County with Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, top law enforcement officers, and prosecutors.
"As everyone in this room knows, Kentucky has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, and in particular, fentanyl," said Cameron during a recent public forum.
Hofmans was part of a panel with legal, medical, and narcotics experts. What she knows most, is the love for a child. In 2020, she lost her son Wyatt to a drug overdose.
“I got a phone call from Wyatt’s girlfriend," Hofmans recalled. "She said, 'Julie, you guys need to come to the hospital immediately in Louisville. I found Wyatt downstairs. He’s unresponsive, and we don’t know what’s wrong.'"
Wyatt, 23, had taken a counterfeit Xanax pill that he didn't now was laced with fentanyl.
“He was actually prescribed Xanax, so I don’t know if he was out of his pills and he got it from a friend of a friend of a friend," Hofmans told WKU Public Radio. "There’s an investigation going on, but they haven’t come up with anything yet. I’m hopeful, but it’s not going to bring Wyatt back.”
If there’s anything Julie wants parents and youth to understand is that one pill can kill. She said Wyatt’s death was instant.
“They said Wyatt didn’t suffer. It just made him really sleepy, and his heart and breathing slowed so down that he just laid on his kitchen floor and died," Hofmans recounted as she sobbed. "Nobody wants that for their kid.”
Julie never got to say goodbye, but she spent five days in the hospital with her son on life support.
“It was very sad because it was during COVID. They wouldn’t let anyone in the room and told me I had to leave. I said you’ll have to drag me out here. I won’t leave my son. I’m going to stay until he goes. I don’t know, he just did something in that room. He gave me his strength."
Today, Julie is using that strength and a mother’s love to keep other families from experiencing the unfathomable.
“I knew I needed to do something because I had to make sense of Wyatt being gone. I knew if I went out and tried to save others from making the same mistake it would be a good thing. I’m not ashamed of my kid. He made a mistake. He was a beautiful, loving child. He made a mistake.”
These days, Julie spends her time going to high schools and universities warning young people about the number one killer of Americans ages 18-45, more than suicide, car crashes, and gun violence combined.
“The drugs on the streets today are not the drugs of days gone by," Hofmans stressed. "You don’t get to go the hospital. It’s not pretty. You don’t get a bad trip or a bad tummy ache. You don’t go to the hospital to have your stomach pumped. You die!”
Hofmans oftens echoes the cautionary words of Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Republican candidate for governor this year. Cameron is holding a series of round table discussions in communities statewide.
“What makes fentanyl so dangerous is its potency and the fact it’s nearly undetectable to the naked eye," Cameron said in Simpson County. "Right here in the commonwealth, law enforcement has seized fentanyl made to look like candy.”
Just two milligrams of fentanyl is deadly, not even enough to cover the size of a fingernail. While raising awareness about accidental overdoses, Hofmans hopes she’s also erasing the stigma of overdose victims like her son Wyatt.
“He went to the University of Louisville for two years and said, 'Mom, I don’t want to be an actuary or accountant. I want to be a model.'
He was a 6'5" gorgeous male who didn’t know a stranger and everybody loved him," Hofmans said. "He always wanted to be famous, but I don’t think it’s wrong to think of Wyatt as a poster child for fentanyl. It doesn’t make him bad.”
Wyatt was an organ donor and Julie takes comfort in knowing her son saved many lives through her family’s tragedy. On Friday, Julie returned to Martha Layne Collins High School in Shelbyville to make a presentation, the same halls her son walked just a few years ago with a future full of promise. She hopes that by reaching just one “Wyatt”, she’ll save an entire family from a lifetime of grief.