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Alex’s Story: Medford family fights back after killer drug takes their son

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Tomes and Tami Garcia share a moment together at their home in Medford. They lost their son, Alex Garcia, to a suspected fentanyl overdose in August. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

Stockings for every member of the Garcia family are hanging from the mantel above their fireplace, and a Christmas tree lights up the living room of their Medford home.

But Alex Garcia won’t be there for Christmas to see what’s in his stocking or to open his presents. He wasn’t there for Thanksgiving, either.

Alex Garcia died Aug. 26 of a suspected fentanyl overdose. He was 19.

“I don’t want other parents to have to go through this,” said his mom, Tami Garcia. “No one wants to imagine losing their child. But people need to start imagining. It’s whatever they can imagine times 100. It’s been an absolute hell.”

Tami and her husband, Tomes Garcia, have launched a nonprofit organization called Alex’s Story to raise awareness among parents, students and other community members about the dangers of fentanyl and other drugs that can cause overdoses. So far, they’ve partnered with Medford School District and hope to start giving in-person presentations to students at the start of the coming year. The couple plans to reach out to other school districts, as well.

“We lost our son, and it’s completely devastating. By sharing our story, we hope to wake people up, so they’ll have the discussions we all should be having,” Tami Garcia said.

Their son’s toxicology results aren’t back yet, but Tami and Tomes Garcia believe he overdosed on fentanyl while taking what he believed was a Percocet pain pill or Xanax anti-anxiety pill to help him sleep.

Drug dealers often use fentanyl to create fake prescription medicine in illegal labs. They use pill-stamping machines to replicate pharmaceutical logos on pills, making them indistinguishable from the real thing. Dealers also can mix fentanyl with other drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine.

Pills found in Alex Garcia’s wallet were so potentially dangerous his wallet had to be triple-bagged, Tomes Garcia said.

Fentanyl is so powerful that an amount the size of a dozen grains of salt can kill a person, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The drug is about 100 times more lethal than arsenic and kills more quickly by halting breathing, according to medical experts.

Alex Garcia was a smart teen who loved to delve into movies, comics, books and NFL statistics. He played football for the South Medford High School Panthers.

Alex Garcia played football for the South Medford High School Panthers. [Photo courtesy of Garcia family]

Then his parents noticed a change around age 16. He stopped playing football and started skipping school. He only wanted to spend time with his girlfriend, smoke marijuana and drink. Since his girlfriend’s dad didn’t enforce any rules, Alex Garcia moved in with his girlfriend, Tomes Garcia said.

“What kind of dad lets a 16-year-old boyfriend move in?” Tami Garcia asked.

The Garcias said too many parents in the Rogue Valley think it’s fine to let kids hang out at home drinking and smoking marijuana.

Research studies on more than 43,000 people show marijuana use can damage people’s ability to make decisions, remember information, plan, organize, solve problems and control their emotions and behavior. Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, is stored in the body for months after the initial high.

The risk of damage is higher in the developing brains of adolescents, and it worsens with regular use and the earlier a teen starts using. Marijuana use can make it harder to succeed at school and work, research shows.

Because they don’t let kids use drugs at their home, the Garcias said their son saw them as “the bad parents.” They tried counseling, but one counselor suggested they allow their son to go to school only one day each week.

“This whole thing was like ‘The Twilight Zone.’ It felt like everybody was enabling my son,” said Tomes Garcia, who previously worked in hospital security and now owns a landscaping business.

Tami Garcia is a talent consultant for Asante. The couple and their three other children live in a house on a quiet cul-de-sac in a middle-class Medford neighborhood.

Tami Garcia and her son, Alex Garcia, enjoy happier times while out walking their husky. [Photo courtesy of Garcia family]

Alex Garcia had struggled with depression and anxiety as a teen. He was on an antidepressant, but his parents couldn’t make sure he was taking the medication regularly while he was living with his girlfriend. Taking an antidepressant haphazardly or stopping suddenly can cause a person to spiral down into depression.

Tami Garcia said she searched for residential addiction treatment for her son from Portland to California, but she couldn’t find a lockdown facility where he could continue his schooling. She was told he could leave at any time.

Alex Garcia kept saying he wanted to quit smoking pot but didn’t know how. He felt increasingly disconnected, isolated and sad. His stomach always hurt, he communicated less and less with his family and he would never tell his parents about other drugs he was taking, Tami Garcia said.

A week before he died, she offered to attend a support meeting with him for people struggling with addiction, but he didn’t want to go.

While Tami Garcia tried different ways to help her son, her husband tried a more tough-love approach. Neither tactic worked, and the strain of disagreeing about what to do took a toll on their marriage. Their other children — ages 7, 12 and 17 — felt hurt as Alex withdrew from the rest of the family. The whole family continues to grieve his death, Tami and Tomes Garcia said.

“If I had it to do all over tomorrow, I still wouldn’t know what to do,” Tami Garcia said. “I have enormous guilt that I’ll never be able to get over.”

Compounding the pain of having to bury their child, the Garcias have unanswered questions about how and why their son died. They don’t know where he got the pill that killed him. Someone took his phone and scrubbed information from his social media accounts, they said.

“Who sold it or gave it to him? Who was around him? Why did someone take his phone?” Tami Garcia asked.

They have a whiteboard where they write clues and information about his death, including his known associates, and they’ve considered hiring a private investigator. The Garcias said they respect the work of police, but they feel Oregon’s decriminalization of a range of drugs has tied the hands of law enforcement.

As the Garcias keep trying to spread the word about the dangers of fentanyl and other drugs that can kill, they hear from people who blame them or their son for what happened.

“I get messages saying my son killed himself. He did this to himself,” Tami Garcia said. “You got to see one segment of my son’s life at his lowest, and you think that’s who my son was.”

Tami Garcia said her son and other young people who suffer fatal overdoses will never have a chance to show what they could have become.

“These are children who haven’t had the chance to turn their lives around. These are risk-taking, naive 19-year-olds who aren’t thinking things through. Never would I have imagined it was this bad in this area or it would hit our own home,” she said.

Overdose deaths in the Rogue Valley and across the nation are spiking as drug trafficking organizations turn to fentanyl. The chemical ingredients can be cheaply imported from China, profits are enormous, fentanyl is extremely addictive and dealers don’t have to deal with the hassles of growing marijuana plants or opium poppies used to make heroin. Because fentanyl is so powerful and pills are so small, drug traffickers can easily carry thousands of potentially deadly pills at a time up and down the Interstate 5 corridor.

Overdose deaths jumped to 91 in Jackson County in 2021, up from 41 deaths in 2020 and 16 in 2019, according to data from the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office.

People now are more likely to die from drug overdoses than suicides, car crashes or homicides — the other major categories of sudden, preventable death investigated by the medical examiner’s office.

In 2021, a record 107,622 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses. Drug poisonings are the leading killer of Americans between the ages of 18 and 45, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Drug experts predict this year will be worse. Alex Garcia will be one number in the statistics for 2022.

The Garcias aim to bring their message about the dangers of fentanyl to middle school and high school students. They said some students may have heard fentanyl is deadly, but they may not realize it’s a local issue that can affect them. They want students to know just one pill can kill.

Tami Garcia hopes that students take away a key message.

“You are not invincible. This can kill you. This won’t skip over you and kill someone else. This doesn’t just happen to other people,” she said.

Tomes Garcia said he hopes students realize their parents care about them more than anybody. He hopes young people listen to their parents’ advice not to use drugs in the first place, and will ask for help if they do start using.

“Your parents and your family are your best friends. Ask them for help and guidance. If you start going down this path, before you know it, you’ll be too far into it. Listen to your parents — as long as they have a good head on their shoulders. If not, seek out a family member or friend you can trust,” he said.

The Garcias hope all parents in the community will show support for each other and students by not allowing kids to hang out and use drugs at home.

Tomes Garcia said drugs appear to be evolving into increasingly dangerous forms. Students need to be equipped with the information and tools they need to walk away.

“Today’s drug is fentanyl,” he said. “What is tomorrow’s drug?”

One drug starting to make inroads in the illegal market is carfentanyl, also spelled carfentanil. A drug used in veterinary medicine to tranquilize large animals like elephants and giraffes, carfentanyl is 100 times stronger than fentanyl.

Other emerging drugs that can kill include various forms of nitazenes — nicknamed “Frankenstein opioids” — that are 20 times more powerful than fentanyl, according to drug experts.

Tami Garcia said spreading the word about fentanyl and launching the nonprofit Alex’s Story has kept her going since her son’s death. She’s still hanging onto her memories of him.

“I have bins of his clothes, and I sleep with them every night. I trade them out so I can smell him still,” she said.

There are lulls when she’s not keeping herself busy and realizes there’s still so much more pain to come.

“It’s starting to hit that he’s not really here. I don’t get to wake up tomorrow and find out it was all just a dream,” she said. “I sit there, and I get lost in my thoughts. I pretend he’s there with me and I’m talking to him and holding him.”

For more information about Alex’s Story, including ways to get involved, see hearalexsstory.org.

If you or someone you know suffers from addiction, call the Lines for Life substance use disorder helpline at 1-800-923-4357 or see linesforlife.org. Phone support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You also can text RecoveryNow to 839863 between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. daily.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.