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Lives lost too soon to fentanyl

Two local mothers share their stories of grief after losing their sons to the fentanyl epidemic.
Colleen Flanagan/THE NEWS Sherry Hebeler with a picture of her son Bradley Porter, 33, who died from a fentanyl overdose in a bathroom at Ridge Meadows Hospital.

We’ve heard the statistics.

Last year 935 people died of an illicit drug overdose in BC. This year already there have been 488 deaths, and we are still not even halfway through the year.

The main cause of the increase in overdose deaths appears to be the illicit drug fentanyl.

Maple Ridge women Kat Wahamaa and Sherry Hebeler both lost their sons to a fentanyl overdose. They are trying to erase the stigma of addiction by speaking out.

These are their stories.

Joseph Taylor-Wahamaa, 25

When Kat Wahamaa found out her son was addicted to Oxycontin, she curled up in a ball and cried.

It was 2015, and he had just checked himself into a detox centre in Vancouver.

“I was talking to him on the phone and I just thought that this is a death sentence and I was so right,” said the mother of three, wiping the tears from her eyes.

Just over a year later her youngest born son, Joseph Taylor-Wahamaa, would be discovered collapsed on the floor of his house, dead from a fentanyl overdose. He was only 25.

Joseph was born on Christmas day in 1990.

“He was always very curious exuberant energetic and beautiful. He was exceptional. He was one of those kids that just shone with an energy,” said Wahamaa.

But at 15 Joseph “went off the rails.” Wahamaa didn’t know what was happening to her youngest son.

Her two older sons were already married and living in Japan. She had separated from her husband.

Wahamaa soon discovered that he had been self medicating. With what, she was not sure. She felt naive. She was finding broken pens and tinfoil around the house, and not really getting what it was about.

“I think it might have been crack cocaine. He would never really say what that was,” she said.

But Joseph was also becoming abusive toward her.

“That was another thing that concerned me because I was worried he would do something he would regret,” said Wahamaa her voice cracking as she choked back a sob.

“That’s what made living together, at some point, not possible.”

Wahamaa tried to get Joseph help.

“His personality was... he could be pretty harsh, you know? And there was many a time that I would get a call from him and I’d be at work and I’d be picking him up off the street corner and he’d be completely out to lunch. It was not a good time.”

She managed to get him admitted to Children’s Hospital twice, but both times he was released.

“Even if the kid’s been committed, they can’t keep them past a certain number of days without their (consent). Even at 15,” said Wahamaa. “He’s not able to make good decisions. He’s still a child and I’m still responsible for him, and yet without his consent he can’t be kept there.”

She got a voluntary care agreement and asked the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development to find him a place to live. Joseph was off the street, but living in Ministry sanctioned places that Wahamaa believes were also not fit environments for children.

But he still managed to pull himself together, and at 18-years enrolled in BCIT. Wahamaa was happy and finally excited about his future.

“(He) did extremely well there. He had grades that were unbelievable.,” said Wahamaa.

He became a journeyman ironworker and got a job immediately upon graduation. He worked on the renovations to B.C. Place Stadium and various skytrain projects.

He eventually met a girl and in November 2012 they had their first child.

“He was just over the moon about having this little boy and everything, and finding a new apartment at Cambie and Marine,” said Wahamaa.

But then his union had a job for him in Kitimat, and the family moved there.

He was promoted to supervisor but that meant more stress on the job and long hours.

The couple became pregnant again and had their second child in March 2014. By now, though, their new life started to unravel. Joseph’s partner moved back to Lake Errock with the children to go back to school and Joseph started travelling back and forth for visits. Then they seemed to have no money.

Joseph was devastated when the couple finally split up.

Then one day he simply called his mother and told her he was going into rehab.

“When he did finally talk to me about what was really going on (he said) someone at work had suggested, because he was so stressed out, well here, try this. And it was oxy,” said Wahamaa.

Wahamaa once again found herself struggling to get help for her son. He thought that he could detox on his own.

“He would say mom, I always do things the hard way. And of course he had a relapse,” she said.

But by the fall of 2015, he was living in his truck.

By now Wahamaa had heard about fentanyl.

“There were times when I didn’t hear from him, and I would go to where he said he was last parking his truck,” she said.

“I was looking for him to see if he was alive, because fentanyl was out and about on the streets even then,” she continued.

Then in 2016, a good friend of his died from an overdose.

“That just made him snap to attention, I think, and he stuck to his treatment,” said Wahamaa.

She could tell he was getting better again.

He decided he wanted to raise his own children.

He returned home and got another new job.

By the middle of August Joseph would be dead.

Wahamaa believes the fentanyl that killed her son was offered to him, once again on the job site.

He died one day before Wahamaa’s 60th birthday.

The family was going to throw a party but he couldn’t attend because he had to work.

“It’s almost as if he knew something,” said Wahamaa, because the Saturday night before the party, he took his mother out to dinner along with her new husband and his oldest brother.

“And that was the last time I saw him.”

Wahamaa is angry with the lack of resources available to people suffering from addiction and also a lack of empathy she sees in the community.

“In Maple Ridge specifically we have a very small and vocal group of people who don’t have a clue about homelessness or addiction and they don’t want to know and they are pushing an envelope with our MLA’s which is beyond belief,” said Wahama.

“Over a thousand people have died and we are doing nothing,” she continued.

Wahamaa is the Maple Ridge Artist-In-Residence. Currently she is doing a Master’s of Eduction and Art in social change at Simon Fraser Universtiy.

She believes addiction is an epidemic in our culture. Tough love does not work.

“Connection is what people need. Not more isolation and abandonment,” Wahamaa said.

“Our war on drugs, that is what is killing our children. It doesn’t help us. We spend billions of dollars on policing and jail then there is a pittance put into services for children and special needs,” she continued.

Wahama has a shrine of sorts set up in her living room.

A pair of Joseph’s baby slippers sits on a block next to a pair of his work boots.

Three framed photographs are prominently displayed.

One close-up of Joseph looking into the lens, another of him dressed in his hard hat and safety vest at work and another a studio portrait with his brothers when he was a toddler.

Wahamaa kisses his picture every morning.

Her favourite is one of him at work wearing his hard hat and safety vest.

“He was so proud of himself and what he had accomplished and that he could care for his family. He was very concerned with being able to provide for his family. He was a great dad and he loved his little boys,” she said crying.

To help her through her grief Wahamaa is working with Citizens Bridge Maple Ridge on a series of musical events in the community called Jammin’ For Youth raising awareness for the Maple Ridge Community Services’ Youth Wellness Centre.

She is also working on a community quilt to be displayed in Maple Ridge in October. Participants will include everyone from elementary school students, seniors and the homeless. Each square is to signify positive resistance to negativity in the community.

A couple of squares will be dedicated to Joseph’s memory.

Wahamaa wants the dying to end. She doesn’t want other parents to go through what she has gone through.

“If it was some other thing that was killing people there would be this huge outcry. But because it’s drugs then it has this other moral overlay on it.”

The real tragedy is it can happen to anyone.

“We live and we die. It is what it is. But I sure would rather have my son. Thank you.”

Bradley Porter, 33

Bradley Porter died by himself in a washroom stall at Ridge Meadows Hospital.

The 33-year-old was there to get antibiotics administered intravenously to fight a severe infection in his legs.

He slipped into the bathroom to get high and dropped to the floor instantly after taking the fentanyl.

Earlier in the day he had said his final goodbye to his mother, Sherry Hebeler, unbeknownst to both of them at the time.

That morning he jumped into the passenger side of her truck to get a lift to the top of the townhouse complex driveway.

Hebeler was heading to work and had to hang a right to the train station.

Bradley wasn’t allowed to stay in the house by himself anymore so he was heading to the library or the Sally Ann to hang out for the day.

Usually, Hebeler would give him lunch money and pick him up from the hospital when he was finished his treatment.

That morning, she will never forget.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Mom, thank you so much, thank you so much for everything.’

I said of course, I love you. You’re my baby. I’d do anything for you.

“So we got to hug and said I love yous. It was a very sweet goodbye,” said Hebeler her eyes tearing over.

Hebeler was only 18-years-old when she had Bradley. She split up with his father when he was just three.

Bradley was a high spirited child.

“He was the kind of kid who would climb a high 50-foot tree and laugh up there watching me look for him. Things like that,” said Hebeler.

As the years went by he wanted to spend more time with his father. At the time Hebeler lived in the Whalley area of Surrey and Bradley’s father was living with his parents in Guildford.

When he took off one day after being punished for not completing a chore, he landed on his father’s doorstep.

“At the time I was so upset and I felt so defeated that I thought if this is what the kid really wants, as much as it hurts, I am going to let him stay with his dad. He needs his dad,” she said.

But things didn’t go well with Bradley’s father and he moved in with another family member when he was 14.

It was at that time, she says, that he started using crack cocaine and heroin.

After about a year, he returned to live with his mother.

By this time Hebeler was becoming suspicious about his drug use. His personality was changing and he was sleeping in all the time.

Hebeler also found out later that he was taking the antipsychotic medicine seroquel, that is used to treat mental conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disease, mania or major depression.

“This is the thing, he started doing all these pills from when he was young and I never, ever, ever wanted that to happen,” said Hebeler.

When Bradley was 17 years old he went to treatment for the first time at Kinghaven Treatment Centre in Abbotsford.

“The thing is, you can’t get them help if they don’t want help,” said Hebeler about her eldest son who was in and out of recovery homes for years.

In 2000, Hebeler moved to Maple Ridge. She had remarried and had two more children.

But by 2010 Hebeler could tell Bradley was hitting the drugs hard. She remembers a time when he was living with her.

“It was mid-July, it must have been 30 degrees out and this kids got a parka, gloves and just being so super scary, weird,” said Hebeler.

“He had an infatuation with knives that kind of thing. He picked up knives when he was high,” she said adding that even though he never directly threatened her, it didn’t make her feel any better.

When he was 25-years-old, he cleaned himself up and moved to Langley, got a job and started body building.

One day at work he jumped off a flat-bed truck and his foot got caught, snapping his leg in half.

“That moment changed his life forever, forever,” said his mother.

He was in constant pain and he became depressed.

“He felt like his whole life was torn out from under him He had worked so hard to get to that point where he was clean, he wasn’t using, he was doing good, he had money in his pocket,” said Hebeler.

“After that, he was just never the same.”

He continued to live in a basement suite in Langley but sometimes he wouldn’t answer the phone for days.

Hebeler would drive over to make sure he was alright and bring him food.

“Sometimes he would come to the door and he would have a blanket around him and he would be sick and sweating,” she said.

He stopped paying his rent and ended up back at his mother’s house in Maple Ridge.

But it was clear his addictions were becoming much worse.

Bradley overdosed on fentanyl the first time in April 2015. It was 6 a.m. and Hebeler was getting ready for work.

Her other children were not at home.

“I came out of the bathroom upstairs and for some reason, it’s that gut, you get that thing. I looked at the door. Normally I don’t, I just get ready and I go, and leave him sleep. But for some reason I decided to check on him.”

The door was locked and when she put her ear to the door she could hear a weird gurgling sound. Hebeler started screaming. She found a strong piece of wire and opened the door to find Bradley half in the bed, half on the floor, with a spoon, needle and mirror thrown around him.

She did chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth waiting for emergency personnel to arrive.

Bradley was released from the hospital two days later.

Hebeler knew that there was a bench-warrant out for Bradley and she begged the RCMP to pick him up to give her more time to get him into treatment.

But it never happened.

The second time Bradley overdosed was in August.

One of his siblings was sick and Bradley volunteered to walk to Save On Foods to get cough syrup.

Hebeler noticed that he took longer than expected, but he eventually returned with the medication.

Later that evening

Hebeler and Bradley were standing beside the fridge when he began asking her if his face looked alright and he walked into the bathroom.

After 20 minutes Hebeler went to the door and called him by his pet name Pea , but there was no answer.

She panicked and broke into the bathroom and found Bradley unconscious on the floor, scrunched up between the sink and the bathtub.

Again, Hebeler made the call to 911 and did CPR until help arrived.

This time they worked on him for a good 45 minutes, Hebeler estimates, because his grandparents had enough time to drive from Langley.

He was rushed to Ridge Meadows Hospital where he was put into a medically induced coma for a week.

This time when Bradley was released from hospital Hebeler had made arrangements for him to go to Visionquest Recovery Society located just outside Logan Lake. But Bradley did not want to go.

“I said ‘Too bad you are going whether you like it or not,’” said Hebeler.

He lasted five weeks into the program and left against the advice of his mother and staff.

At the beginning of November, Bradley overdosed yet again.

Hebeler had come home from work and found him lying on the couch, sweating and white as a ghost.

She asked if he was OK and he told her he didn’t feel well and was going to take a bath.

After 25 minutes, Hebeler went to check on him and could hear the same gurgling noise coming from him as when she found him the previous times.

This time it was her other son, who was now 14 years old, who called 911.

When the emergency workers arrived they gave him a dose of Narcan and he came back to life instantly.

However, he refused to go to the hospital even though the paramedics warned him that he could still overdose when the Narcan wore off.

“I said listen here. If you sign that waiver and you don’t go to the hospital, you need to leave tonight,” said Hebeler.

But Bradley signed the waiver and left.

“I was just sick by this point. You have no idea what it’s like to send your child out into the street in the dark in the cold, high, nowhere to go,” cried Hebeler.

Bradley went to the Sally Ann until one day Hebeler got a phone call from a friend who worked there.

She told her that Bradley couldn’t stay there anymore because he had a severe infection in his legs.

Hebeler took him back for good. His legs were so infected they were almost black. He started treatment at the hospital.

Every night they would lay in her king-sized bed and look at stars projected on the ceiling and watch movies.

The day before he passed away, mother and son went Christmas shopping together.

“(We) had a wonderful day. He was excited. Things that he picked out for himself I would somehow sneak back and buy,” laughed Hebeler.

The night of Nov. 26 Hebeler knew something was wrong. By 9:30 p.m., she had not heard from her son.

She missed a call. Thinking it was Bradley needing a pickup she called the hospital.

She explained who she was to the person on the phone, and was passed to another lady.

“Is your son Bradley Porter?” the woman asked.

“He checked in at about 10 after 7,” she said to Hebeler.

“I thought she was going to say, ‘He’s done pick him up,’” Hebeler continued.

Instead the lady said, “I’m sorry to tell you, but he passed away.”

“My poor kids. They were already in their beds. I just dropped to the floor and started screaming and screaming. They were terrified,” said Hebeler.

When Hebeler arrived at the hospital to identify her son, she was brought into a room with a gurney surrounded by drapes.

“He wasn’t alive, I know that. He was gray and cold,” said Hebeler.

But there was still a gurgling sound coming from his body and she tried to give him chest compressions thinking in her mind that the doctors were mistaken.

“I don’t even know how to put into words what it’s like for a mom to have to go there and see the love of her life just dead, gray, cold and dead, just dead,” said Hebeler holding a tissue to her eyes.

“I’ll never get that vision out of my mind and I never really should have been the one to (identify) him. That goodbye that morning should have been my last memory of him,” she said.

Hebeler wants people to know that addiction is not prejudiced. That it doesn’t just affect lower income people or stupid children.

“They are members of society who work every day like everybody else,” she said.

“These junkies that you talk about that should just die anyway, because they are just sucking up our resources. The horrible things that I read. I want them to remember that the person or these kids that they are talking about have families that love them very much,” she continued.

She would like to see parents have more rights over their children so that when they are in trouble parents are able to intervene. She also wants more treatment options available for addicts.

Most importantly, she wants to keep the conversation going.

“We need to stop feeling ashamed. We need to address this. Don’t sweep it under the rug. Don’t lie to your friends that everything is fine,” said Hebeler.

“Bring it out and talk about it. Reach out to somebody who has been through it. It doesn’t matter.Stop hiding it stop being in denial about it. Because you are going to lose them.”

Colleen Flanagan/THE NEWS Kat Wahamaa with picures of her son Joseph Taylor-Wahamaa, 25, who died of a fentanyl overdose last August. The artist-in-residence for Maple Ridge kisses his photograph every morning.
Colleen Flanagan/THE NEWS Kat Wahamaa with picures of her son Joseph Taylor-Wahamaa, 25, who died of a fentanyl overdose last August. The artist-in-residence for Maple Ridge kisses his photograph every morning.
Colleen Flanagan/ THE NEWS Sherry Hebeler holds a picture of her son Bradley Porter, 33, who died from a fentanyl overdose in a bathroom at Ridge Meadows Hospital.
Contributed Joseph Taylor-Wahamaa, 25, died of a fentanyl overdose in August.

Colleen Flanagan

About the Author: Colleen Flanagan

Colleen Flanagan is an award-winning multimedia journalist with more than 15 years experience in the industry.
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