Ellicott City's Jon May, standing next to a portrait of his son, Ryan, will speak at Howard County’s fourth annual observance of International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31. An overdose claimed Ryan's life in 2016.
Ellicott City's Jon May, standing next to a portrait of his son, Ryan, will speak at Howard County’s fourth annual observance of International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31. An overdose claimed Ryan's life in 2016. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Jon May and his wife, Patty, were looking forward to relaxing on the beach as they drove to North Carolina, their son and daughter and two friends traveling behind them in a Honda Odyssey minivan.

It was summer 2010 and their two-vehicle caravan was passing through Williamsburg, Virginia, on the way to the Outer Banks when highway traffic suddenly came to a standstill, Jon May recalled.

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As the couple’s car came to a stop, Patty instinctively glanced at the passenger-side rearview mirror and watched in horror as another van sped toward the kids’ vehicle.

“Patty screamed, ‘They’re going to get hit!’ ” he said, and the excruciating sound of metal on metal filled the air.

The outcome of that split-second would forever change the Ellicott City family’s lives, thrusting them into battle against one of the fiercest foes in modern times — opioid addiction.

May will share his family’s story at Howard County’s observance of International Overdose Awareness Day on Saturday. The public is invited to the program.

Amazingly, everyone emerged nearly unscathed from the crumpled Honda, which was beyond repair, and also from the van that rear-ended it, said the business lawyer, 54.

“Ryan said he was fine, but began complaining that his back hurt,” May said of the couple’s then-17-year-old son, whom they’d taken, along with the others, to be examined at a local hospital.

The teen was prescribed the opioid painkiller hydrocodone “and we think, in retrospect, that was the start of his addiction journey … though it took time for his life to unravel.”

The end — after multiple cycles of rehabilitation and relapse — came six tumultuous years later, when he was living in Florida.

Ryan May died at age 23 in 2016 from a drug cocktail of fentanyl, carfentanyl and U-47700, his father said. Police discovered his body Sept. 8 in a Miami hotel room.

Promoting global solidarity

This will be Howard’s fourth consecutive observance of International Overdose Awareness Day, said organizer Barbara Allen.

To promote global solidarity in the fight against substance use disorders, Allen abides by the Aug. 31 date for the event each year — which was first held in 2001 in Melbourne — no matter what day of the week it falls. Some jurisdictions hold events on other dates, she said.

Allen chairs the county’s Opioid Crisis Community Council, which was formed in March 2018 by former Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, and serves on a dozen state and county advisory boards and councils.

She and her husband, Tom, who also live in Ellicott City, know firsthand what the Mays have gone through. They lost their son, Jimmy, to a heroin and alcohol overdose in 2003 when he was 35 after two decades of ups and downs.

In his memory, the couple founded James’ Place Inc. to provide scholarships for recovery services, sponsor educational programs and boost awareness. Allen has also lost two brothers and a niece to drug-related incidents.

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The substance abuse crisis continues to affect Howard County, with most overdose deaths attributed to opioids, a class of legal and illegal opium-based drugs that can be highly addictive.

In 2017, according to the county police department, 171 non-fatal overdoses and 57 fatal overdoses were recorded, and 51 of the fatal overdoses were opioid-related. Last year, the number of non-fatal overdoses increased to 188, but fatal overdoses decreased to 44. Of those deaths, 38 were opioid-related.

So far in 2019, there have been 110 non-fatal overdoses and the12 fatal overdoses recorded were opioid-related.

While observing that statistics are heading in the right direction and that trend merits cautious optimism, Allen said society has a long way to go in its attitude toward those who suffer from addiction.

“People still need to learn that this is a disease, and people in the throes of this disease are not functioning the way they should,” she said. “Look around and see how many people we’ve lost.”

Honoring the living and the dead

“Time to Remember, Time to Act” is the 2019 global theme of International Overdose Awareness Day. Howard’s program, featuring a candlelight vigil and recovery celebration, will be held from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 9120 Frederick Road in Ellicott City. Free tickets are available at eventbrite.com.

More than two dozen resource exhibitors will hand out literature and answer questions from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Howard County Fire and Rescue will demonstrate a typical overdose response at 6:15 p.m. that includes administering naloxone, a drug used to block the effects of opioids. Two-dose naloxone take-home kits will be distributed.

Allen will welcome guests at 7 p.m. followed by a prayer led by the Rev. Ann Ritonia of St. John’s. Brief remarks will be delivered by County Executive Calvin Ball, Police Chief Lisa Myers and Chris Collins, recovery support and criminal justice services supervisor for the county health department.

Four speakers will give keynote addresses. May and Lt. Steve Olson will offer words of remembrance while Jack Matthews, a certified peer counselor in the health department, and county resident Liz Silverberg will share their personal stories of long-term recovery.

A candlelight vigil be held at 7:45 p.m. and attendees will be invited onstage to a microphone to say the names of loved ones who have died and to hold up 4-inch-by-6-inch photos.

“This tribute to people we’ve lost to the disease of addiction — just saying their names out loud and letting them hang in the air — may be the most moving part of the evening,” Allen said.

Stepping into the light

Jon May credits his wife with giving him the courage to speak at the event. It will be his first time sharing their son’s tragic story at a public gathering.

“We deeply believe silence and shame about the disease of addiction only lead to more destruction, sadness and death,” he said of his reasons for coming forward. “Our son died in Florida, but his problem was fed and nurtured right here in Howard County.”

May also said “good treatment centers” should be available on demand, with fewer profit-oriented facilities in the mix. He cautions parents not to wait for an emergency to unfold in their family before getting educated about treatment options.

As May recounted how so many people contacted the family after Ryan’s death to say he was a kind person who helped people and they were thankful to have known him, his voice finally cracked.

“Ryan loved people and people loved him,” he said softly.

May kept a journal and wrote poetry to help process his feelings in the immediate aftermath of Ryan’s death. He will read a poem at the event with the hope of encouraging and inspiring others.

“On the day he died, I got handed a big stone and I have to carry it around every day,” he said. “But your muscles develop and you learn to hold the weight. Things happen that help you adapt.”

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