Travis Mcdonald’s formative years were spent on the ice rinks and ball diamonds of Chilliwack in the early 1990s.
He was a young boy with charisma, big dreams and a winning smile. But all of that seemed to change when he was 17. His mom, Jackie Mcdonald-Read, says that’s when he tried acid and experienced a “bad trip.”
He was never the same after that day, and suffered horribly, she says. What followed was two decades of Mcdonald struggling with mental health issues and drug use.
Then, on Dec. 27, 2016 at an apartment in the Gastown Hotel in Vancouver, fentanyl took his life — almost. Someone ran down to the front desk and he was revived about 10 minutes after overdosing. Travis was transported to the ICU at St. Paul’s Hospital and his mom stayed close by in the following days.
She brought in a photo of him from the time before his addiction, and placed it prominently beside his bed so the staff would see the boy with big dreams instead of the addict withering away in an induced coma.
He developed pneumonia in his hospital bed, and as they tried to bring him out of the coma the doctors found the damage was just too great.
And so, on Jan. 1, Mcdonald-Read had to say good-bye to her son a final time.
“You have your child who was overdosed on drugs, dead, revived, and you have to kill them again,” she says, in a phone conversation from her home in Agassiz. She lives in the small town now, but Travis grew up in Chilliwack.
He played both baseball and hockey, and his name was a regular in the sports pages. He had plenty of friends, and had plans for his life.
But drugs and mental health are hard to tease apart, and Travis walked the line between staying on medications that numbed his feelings and looking for drugs that would reignite them. Travis was a drug addict, but wasn’t a heroin addict, Mcdonald-Read says.
They found fentanyl, crystal meth and another non-opiate in his system.
“Heroin wasn’t his drug of choice,” she said. “There’s a big misconception in the news that fentanyl is an opiate or heroin user problem. There was no heroin in his system.”
Of course, there were times Travis didn’t use drugs at all.
Mcdonald-Read wants everyone to know that fentanyl can kill anyone, and that everyone who dies from fentanyl overdose had the potential to live a fulfilling life. She has recently joined a Facebook support group for those struggling with the loss of loved ones. The page was created by Gesar Saunders, a Victoria man whose brother died from a fentanyl overdose in Chilliwack in December. He created the page to connect victims’ families, and to do something in the name of their loved ones.
For Mcdonald-Read, that connection to others who understand the loss is helping her get through this time.
And it’s helping her understand that it’s not her fault.
“One of the things that comes along with having children that use drugs is a lot of guilt and shame and ‘where did I go wrong?’” she says. “So to see other people going through the same thing, it’s helping.”
She is reaching out to connect with even more who are grieving, in hopes their numbers can help shine a different light on the problem.
“You look at all these beautiful people who have died,” she says. “People need to see this and relate it to their lives. They need to be able to see that it could happen to their own family member and people need to get afraid.”
Travis wasn’t the only person in ICU in a coma during his brief stay before his death. Mcdonald-Read noticed several young people in the same condition, and in the month of December alone, 142 people in B.C. died from opioid overdoses. The total for the year was 914 deaths, and each person has left parents, children, and other family members to mourn their losses.
That’s one of the reasons Mcdonald-Read posted the picture by her son’s hospital bed.
“The medical staff can be mechanical in dealing with what they have to,” she says. “So I put a picture there of before he was an addict to tell them, you may be looking at an addict in the bed dying but this is really who this kid is. This kid was in hockey for years, baseball for years, and loved by so many people. He had dreams.”
It’s time for people to wake up and realize that even experimental drug use can lead to deaths these days, she adds.
“I want people to feel like there’s a serial killer out there and lock their door,” she says. “Because it’ll come to you no matter what.”
She’s been sick herself since December, and now grieving. Still, she wants to get the message out to the public and is hopeful that the trend of fentanyl deaths will slow down.
“Everybody is just misunderstanding fentanyl,” she says. “”All these people, they were all just people.”