As a funeral director in Aldergrove, John Romeyn organizes three to four funerals a month for families who have lost a loved one to fentanyl.
“A father I sat with a while ago, between sobs of grief, said to me, ‘I promised to take my daughter shopping for an outfit to wear for her graduation. . . . now I have to decide what she will wear in her casket.’
“I sit across the table from these families and they are heartbroken, they have lost everything. I made a promise that I have to do something,” he said.
This crisis is something Romeyn knows a lot about as a former addict who has lost friends to overdose deaths.
“This is personal for me,” he said.
“I’m tired of arranging funerals for these young people.”
“It’s time to step up and take a proactive role. I owe it to the ones out there suffering. I owe it to the families I served over the past few years. I owe it to our community.”
‘They need to be shocked’
With help from like-minded friends, he has lined up a production company which, along with police, fire, ambulance and coroner’s services, will create a “shocking video” about the potential end result of fentanyl use, to be shown to high school students.
“I want to make sure the video is done before grad time,” he said.
He has started a GoFundMe page to get financing to make the movie. Already more than $5,000 has been donated.
He’s also been working with local politicians and speaking with the Langley School District, hoping to be able to bring his message and spread awareness.
“I want to have a hearse outside the school and a casket inside the gym, and say to the kids, ‘don’t let this be your last ride.’
“They need to be shocked, because this drug is taking lives at an epidemic rate. This drug has killed more people than SARS did and yet we don’t treat it with the same urgency.”
Recently, his son, who is also an employee of the funeral home, attended a party at a friend’s house. A seven-year friendship was cut short when his friend succumbed to a fentanyl overdose.
“My son and others attempted CPR to no avail.”
Romeyn had to organize that funeral, too.
Recently, a pastor came in to arrange a funeral for his own son. The young man was a first time user and died within five minutes of taking a pill laced with fentanyl, said Romeyn.
“This epidemic isn’t just impacting drug users, this is every walk of life, every age, first time users, recreational users,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s oxy, coke, heroin. Every time a person does a drug they are playing Russian roulette with their lives. A small amount of fentanyl, the equivalent of three grains of salt, cut into another drug, can kill you.”
He feels deeply lucky that he stopped using drugs before fentanyl hit the streets.
“Four years ago, I would have taken that green pill and I’d be dead,” he said referring to the green pill that caused 11 overdoses within an hour on the Downtown Eastside recently.
“I was an addict for 25 years. I took up to 100 pills a day. Next month I will celebrate four years clean and sober. Creating this awareness campaign and reaching out to students is my therapy, my way of giving back.”
‘You can’t trust anything’
The reality is an addict will risk their lives for the next fix, even knowing it could kill them, he said.
But there is hope, he stressed.
“If I can get clean, anyone can.”
For Romeyn, it was his dedicated wife who stuck by him through his years of addiction that made the difference.
“Four years ago, my wife drove me to recovery and said if I didn’t go, it was over. It took me making that choice to really get clean for her and it’s been an incredible four years. If you feel hopeless, don’t.
“Being clean has been the best years of my life.”
‘Time to move forward’
Romeyn attended the fentanyl awareness forums in Maple Ridge and in Langley, along with grieving mothers, police, an emergency room nurse and the coroner.
“From that moment forward, I knew it was time to move forward with this campaign. We need to make a difference,” he said.
They hope to move this campaign into Langley and Aldergrove schools to begin with in the New Year, and then follow through with all the school districts. While drunk driving awareness campaigns reach students each year, oddly no fentanyl awareness campaigns are scheduled at schools, he points out.
The Langley School District did partner with other agencies to put on the fentanyl awareness forum held in October. The school district said addressing substance abuse is addressed in applicable grades.
Getting the message to young people is the key, said Romeyn. The Fentanyl Awareness Facebook page they created in October has been shared and seen in nine countries and almost every major city in Canada, he said. Visit www.facebook.com/fentanylawareness or go to the www.gofundme.com/fentanyl to learn more.