SARASOTA COUNTY — Not a single night passes without Cindy Harney’s thoughts turning to the “what ifs” in life.
More than four years have passed since she lost her 20-year-old son, Garrett, to a prescription drug overdose. The thought still brings tears to her eyes, but it’s not his loss she worries about now. It’s the others like him who battle the same addiction — or those who may if they aren’t educated about prescription drugs.
Harney, co-founder of Families Against Addictive Drug Abuse, hopes to keep other children safe through education, networking and advocacy.
“This isn’t a color; this isn’t a specific age,” Harney said of the prescription drug abuse epidemic and her crusade against it. “I have nothing to lose. I have lost.”
On Harney’s 55th birthday Feb. 17, The Community Foundation of Sarasota in partnership with the Wilson-Wood Foundation honored her with the Unsung Hero Award for her work in the community. The foundation also recognized the Rev. Willie Beckom, of Laurel, and Scott Biehler, of Sarasota. The award recognizes ordinary citizens of the community who have made outstanding contributions to their neighborhoods or communities.
“I was humbled,” Harney said. “It was quite an honor.”
Harney’s crusade began shortly after losing her son in 2006. After Garrett’s death, Harney and her family found they weren’t alone in their struggle.
“Kids were either in jail, rehab or dead,” Harney remembered. “Kids do not think these (drugs) will hurt them because they are legal.”
A newspaper article ultimately introduced Harney to another woman, Ruth Lyerly, of Bradenton, whose son shot himself in 2005. Together, they created FAADA, a not-for-profit dedicated to educating the public about prescription drug abuse.
She and Lyerly were instrumental in having a prescription drug monitoring bill passed in the Legislature. The program, which should start at the end of this year, will allow pharmacies to track the number of prescriptions received by individuals — a move that hopefully will prevent individuals from visiting multiple doctors for prescriptions of the same drugs.
They’ve spoken at schools, advocated on Capitol Hill and comforted and provided resources to families such as Summerfield’s Greg and Janice Spring, who lost their son, Derek, to a prescription drug overdose in 2008.
“As we do what we do, we relive it over and over again,” Harney said. “It’s emotionally draining, and it physically takes its toll. But we look at it as helping others keep their boys from doing what our boys did.”
Harney said she and Lyerly are well past the stereotypes that come with overdoses and drug abuse. She knows her son was a good child, despite the stealing and other bad habits the drugs influenced Garrett to do. Harney was a stay-at-home mom who cooked dinner every night and ushered her children to Little League and other activities — the type of family no one would expect to face this type of tragedy.
A WAR ON DRUGS
Statistics don’t fully show the battle Harney and Lyerly have assumed because they often only account for deaths attributed to overdoses. They do not reveal the number of individuals who overdose but do not die or the people killed by drivers under the influence of drugs.
The women recognize they must think outside the box to see change come quickly — and it still won’t be quick enough.
Already, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office received funding for a Prescription Drug Task Force that will serve to educate the public. Harney hopes one day the program can expand with officers being able to test drivers for prescription drug usage.
And both Manatee and Sarasota sheriff’s offices already are participating in the Medicine Cabinet Project, which provides a safe drop-off point for unused prescriptions.
Harney said she is encouraged by the progress she’s seeing. But what’s ahead, she said, may have even more of an impact. She plans to meet with officials in the Federal Drug Administration in Washington, D.C., to lobby for controls on controlled substances. Harney also plans to meet with U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan later this month to see what he can do to promote the cause.
And FAADA is hosting its first Fight for Life 5K fundraiser May 1 at the Sarasota Polo Club.
Harney admits the battle is exhausting, but she hears stories every day of children dying. And each time, she vows to move faster.
“I think to myself, ‘I’m not working quick enough,’” Harney said.
That’s why she and Lyerly are promoting the cause so relentlessly. Each child educated about the dangers of prescription drugs could be one life saved. Families may never have to go through the pains of losing a child and never even know it, she said.
“I can’t go to bed at night without knowing there’s someone else I could help,” Harney said.
For more information about FAADA, visit the organization’s Web site, www.faada.info.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].