The dangers of fentanyl — one mother’s story

Oliver was nine years old when his dad, Chris, married his step-mom, Jennifer.


In this article:

  • A Swedish social worker’s stepson died of an opioid overdose just a few days after turning 18.

  • She’s sharing his story to raise awareness of the dangers of fentanyl in hopes of saving other young people’s lives.

  • Fentanyl is involved in more deaths of Americans under age 50 than any other cause of death, including heart disease, cancer, homicide, suicide and other accidents — and is driving the recent increase in U.S. drug overdose deaths.

Jennifer McKay, MSW, LICSW, manager of outpatient behavioral health at Swedish, has been working with patients struggling with substance use for seven years. Through roles like outpatient drug and alcohol counselor, mental health therapist and lead social worker on the behavioral health assessment team in the emergency room, McKay is intimately familiar with the dangers of opioid overdose. But she never expected it to happen in her own home.

On Dec. 31, 2020, McKay was at work in the ER when Chris, her partner of 11 years, called. Chris had found his son, Oliver — McKay’s stepson — dead of an apparent drug overdose. Oliver had turned 18 only five days earlier.

Brimming with charisma

Chris and McKay moved in together in 2012. The newly formed couple blended their families, with seven kids between them ranging in age from 5 to 15. Oliver, at 9, was smack in the middle. Still, he was never one to blend in.

From the time McKay met Oliver, he was everything “extra,” she says. “Oliver was a kid who didn’t understand that he was a kid,” McKay says. “He wanted to be able to do what he wanted to do and when he wanted to do it.”

Oliver loved music and fashion, exploring his way through different styles at different times, from preppy to grunge to high fashion. He loved the animated sitcom “Rick and Morty.” And food. “We could never get him enough food,” McKay laughs. “He would get so excited about Thanksgiving because he loved to eat. In the sixth grade, he was already 5’11”. He was tall and lanky with the biggest dimples and the biggest smile.”

Oliver was also incredibly charismatic. “He had no problem holding conversations with adults on an equal playing field,” McKay says. “He was well spoken. We always joked that he would do great in sales.”

But most of all, Oliver was kind.

“Everybody loved him,” McKay says, recalling a time when her daughter, Elise, hurt her ankle when she was 15 and had trouble getting from class to class. “Oliver was the same age and went to the same school, so he volunteered to give her piggyback rides to her classes.”

“He didn’t understand what fentanyl was”

Despite his winsome ways, Oliver wasn’t always easy as an adolescent. 

“He was your typical angsty teenager,” McKay says. “When he passed away, he was at the age when he wasn’t a little kid anymore. He was becoming surer of who he was, figuring out who he was in our family unit and other circles, like within his school and friend groups, which, of course, is the developmental task of adolescence.”

McKay and Chris worried about Oliver, always breathing a sigh of relief when they saw his car parked in front of the house. That’s why learning he’d overdosed at home was especially heartbreaking. “You always think your children are safest at home,” she says.

Although they would have to wait weeks for the formal toxicology report, McKay and Chris discovered, through other pills they found in their son’s room, that Oliver had taken Percocet laced with fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration as an analgesic (pain reliever) and anesthetic. Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine, however, and 50 times more potent than heroin as a pain reliever.

While McKay and Chris weren’t surprised to find that Oliver been experimenting with substances, they were “completely shocked” that he was using opioids.

“We went through the messages on his phone and saw that he was telling his friends he really wanted to stop, that he felt it was getting out of control and he didn’t want that for himself,” McKay says. “It was obvious through his messages that he didn’t understand what fentanyl was or that he was taking it. We realized that if Oliver didn’t know about the dangers of fentanyl, his friends didn’t know either.”

The first thing McKay and Chris did after the coroner left was drive to Oliver’s friend’s house. It was a friend who, through text messages, they’d learned he’d been using with most often. “We wanted to warn her and encourage her to tell her friends who may have had the same batch of pills that Oliver had,” McKay says. They then drove to family members’ houses to give them the news in person. “They thought we were just stopping by to wish them a happy new year,” McKay recalls. “It was hard watching their faces go from pleasure at seeing us to utter devastation.”

His absence is a presence

Today, roughly two-and-a-half years since Oliver’s death and “for the most awful of reasons,” McKay can say that her family is closer because of what they went through together. But it’s been a very rocky road getting there.

Especially hard was Elise’s graduation ceremony — a ceremony Oliver should have attended, as well. “It was just six months after Oliver had passed away,” McKay says. “We had to keep it together and stay focused on my daughter’s accomplishments and her future while knowing he should have been there walking across that stage, too. It’s hard not seeing him get to grow up into the adult he was so anxious to be.”

Family get-togethers are also hard. “We share memories and talk about Oliver a lot,” McKay says. “We celebrated what would have been his 20th birthday, the second birthday that has passed without him, this past December. Oliver’s mom, Lela, and her husband flew here and came to our house, and we made a meal that Oliver would have enjoyed and his favorite cake.”

Oliver’s family also keeps his sense of humor top of mind. “When Oliver was growing up and trying to make sense of what he was seeing in the world, he wasn’t afraid to say, ‘That’s so stupid,’” McKay says. “Since he passed away, someone in our family will often look at something and say, ‘Oliver would say that’s so stupid.’ It’s one of the ways we keep him with us — by keeping that Oliver viewpoint as a lens when we look at the world. His absence is definitely a presence in our family.”

McKay recalls returning to work after Oliver passed away. She took three weeks off, but before she knew it, she was back in the ER seeing young patients who’d overdosed on opioids. “I had to compartmentalize my own emotions and do my job as a social worker,” she says. “Although I love being a social worker, even in the hardest moments, I wouldn’t have been able to return to that work if I didn’t have a family of co-workers there to support me.”

If McKay’s work with substance use patients has taught her nothing else, it’s that Oliver wasn’t addicted to opioids. “If he’d been addicted, I know I would have noticed because that’s what I do,” she says. “He just got unlucky, and that’s what’s so scary. There are varying strengths of fentanyl in varying batches of pills. You could use it here and there until you got unlucky. And Oliver was just unlucky.”

Raising awareness

The message of how “it only takes once” is what McKay wants people to learn from Oliver’s story.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl is involved in more deaths of Americans under age 50 than any other cause of death, including heart disease, cancer, homicide, suicide and other accidents — and is driving the recent increase in U.S. drug overdose deaths.

Illegal fentanyl is being used to make fake prescription pills, and is also found in common street drugs, like cocaine, MDMA and heroin. Fake prescription pills, like the ones Oliver took, are the main reason fentanyl-involved deaths are the fastest-growing among young people in America.

That’s why advocacy groups are urging people, especially young people, to assume any prescription pill, including OxyContin, Percocet, Adderall and Xanax, they see online is fake.

“Since Oliver’s death, my daughter carries Narcan (a recently approved over-the-counter medicine that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose) with her at all times. She doesn’t want what happened to Oliver to happen to anyone else.” – Jennifer McKay, MSW, LICSW, Manager of Outpatient Behavioral Health at Swedish


Learn more and find a provider

If you’re concerned about opioid use — for yourself or for a loved one — our Behavioral Health and Wellbeing department can help. Our team provides comprehensive behavioral health care, from tele-services to inpatient care, and is dedicated to decreasing and eliminating the stigma associated with substance use and mental illness.

To access a behavioral health provider (a licensed clinical social worker, psychologist, addiction medicine specialist or psychiatrist), call 206-320-2961 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.

If you are suicidal and need help now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Related resources

Addiction and recovery during pregnancy

Overdose deaths are rising. Swedish responds with treatment and support.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Swedish Behavioral Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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