After their son died from fentanyl, Charlotte mother and father turn to activism
Christopher Ramirez had just returned to his home in Cornelius on July 1 when he got a call. On the line was a paramedic who asked him to confirm his name, and that his son, a Hough High junior, was named Laird.
"Before I could say anything or think anything further, the paramedic said, 'I need you to sit down.' He said ... 'Your son is dead.' I made him repeat it three times. I mean, I was floored," he said.
His son, 17-year-old Laird Ramirez, had spent the night with a friend. The paramedic said it looked like an overdose.
Ramirez quickly called his ex-wife and Laird's mother, Gwyneth Brown.
"He kept repeating it, and I kept saying, 'No. He's not dead.' I just refused to believe it," she said.
They rushed to the house where Laird's friend said he had taken what they thought was a Percocet painkiller the night before, purchased from an acquaintance.
Paramedics said the pill likely contained a lethal dose of fentanyl.
"It was a complete surprise to both of us, because we, living where we live, had no idea that fentanyl was an issue in our community," Ramirez said.
Deaths involving fentanyl are on the rise among teens and young adults
Fentanyl has been a growing threat in the United States for decades. The synthetic opioid is cheap to produce and extremely potent. It's often added to other street drugs, making them cheaper, stronger and more deadly, even in small doses.
The consequences have been particularly deadly for young people. In 2021, fentanyl was involved in 84% of all teen overdoses, according to the CDC, and fentanyl-related deaths among adolescents nearly tripled from 2019 to 2021, with almost a quarter of those deaths involving counterfeit pills.
Inside the back of an ambulance at the Mecklenburg County EMS headquarters, the agency's deputy director, Jon Studnek, unzipped a medical supply bag and produced a box labeled "Narcan."
"This is what we carry. It's kind of the professional formula," he said.
This life-saving nasal spray, also known by its generic name, naloxone, can reverse an opioid overdose in minutes, and paramedics have been using it with increasing frequency — on average seven times a day in Mecklenburg County.
"Fentanyl has become so pervasive in the drug supply, that it's really not safe to experiment with any types of recreational drugs these days," Studnek said.
He said his team has seen more young people overdosing on fentanyl in recent years. In some cases, they've even seen students overdose in schools.
"It has happened, yeah," Studnek said.
State data shows deaths involving fentanyl are up 6% in North Carolina this year. In total, some 286 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 who died tested positive for fentanyl in the year ending in April.
School districts are playing catch-up
While paramedics are handing out free Narcan on their daily calls, Studnek says more people need to be made aware of the drug, so they can talk with their loved ones — a point echoed by Lauren Kestner with Queen City Harm Reduction.
"Would you rather lose your son or daughter or whoever it is that you love in your life, or have a difficult conversation? Because I would so much rather have that conversation than have somebody die in my life," she said.
Many school districts, meanwhile, have just recently started to respond. An NPR analysis this month found 11 of the 20 largest school districts in the country carry naloxone.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is among those working to obtain naloxone. They haven’t released a timeline.
Jennifer Edwards is a drug counselor with CMS's Student Assistance Program. She said she often talks about fentanyl with students who are referred to her.
"When I meet with my students, I do ask them about it. Are you aware of fentanyl? You know, are you aware of these pills that are out here that are laced with fentanyl? And either they will say yes or no, and I educate them on that" she said.
She and her colleagues have also started incorporating fentanyl into their drug presentations. Last month, counselors discussed the drug at a seminar for Hough High families.
"We're not going to sit here and be defensive about it. We're going to try to do what we can to help our students and parents and our community the best way that we can. So if it does mean more education, yes," Edwards said.
Parents say CMS response lacks urgency, action
Chris Ramirez and Gwyneth Brown, whose teenage son was killed from an overdose in July, say CMS isn't taking nearly enough meaningful action.
They point to districts in Texas and Los Angeles that have launched system-wide fentanyl awareness campaigns that include peer-to-peer discussions, parent outreach and staff training on how to respond to overdoses.
"I mean these are low-hanging fruit that we need to be grabbing for education and prevention," Brown said.
Ramirez said families can only have these conversations, and potentially equip their kids with naloxone, which is available at many pharmacies without a prescription, if they're first made aware.
"I've always prided myself on providing protection in a safe environment for my children, and in some ways, because I wasn't aware of this threat, you know, in some ways I feel like I failed," he said.
Brown and Ramirez look at photos of Laird on their phones. A high school wrestler with long dark hair, he liked skateboarding and the outdoors. In photos, he smiles with a birthday cake and gazes across a lake.
The parents say through their son's death, they've found a new mission — to work toward preventing other families from experiencing the grief they're now living.
"It's the worst call in the whole world," Brown said. "Nobody needs to have these conversations with paramedics and with police officers. Nobody needs to stand vigil where it happened until the coroner comes, and certainly nobody needs to have the neighbors standing and watching, and if what we do can prevent that, then yeah, that's worth it."