Linda Surks

Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives
Statement of Linda Surks

Committee on House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources
July 26, 2006

Good morning Chairman Souder, Congressman Cummings, and Members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for holding this hearing today to examine the problem of prescription drug abuse, a subject which is very close to my heart. My name is Linda Surks and I’d like to tell you about my son, Jason.

Jason was the kind of person that people were drawn to. He made friends easily and had a great sense of humor. He was a caring person and a loving son who respected his family. He was helpful around the house and in the winter he always shoveled our neighbor’s walk. He was active in his youth group and he often volunteered for various community projects—he even worked for NCADD where I work, a community-based organization in Middlesex County, New Jersey that works to prevent substance abuse.

When Jason was a little boy, he’d lie about little things. Like the time he was seven years old and swore he had taken a shower, even though I showed him that the tub was completely dry. He got caught in little lies like that all the time. As he grew into a young man, we talked about it and he said he realized how silly it all was. I was convinced he had outgrown it. In December of 2003, I realized that he had not.

At the time, Jason was finishing the first semester of his second year as a pre-pharmacy major at college. Since his dorm was only 45 minutes away, he came home frequently on weekends, often to work at the pharmacy where he had a job since high school. On one Sunday night in December, I remember saying goodbye to him at our front door. As I often did, I put my hand on his cheek. I loved that scruffy feel of his stubble—it reminded me that my little boy was growing up. I caressed Jason’s cheek and told him I love him.

Three days later, on the morning of December 17, 2003, my husband called me at work to tell me the hospital had called to say Jason was brought to the emergency room and we should come as soon as we can. We met near the turnpike and drove to the hospital together in silence. We couldn’t image what had happened—my husband had spoken to Jason the day before and said he sounded fine.

When we arrived at the hospital emergency room, the first thing I remember is being referred to as “the parents,” and being ushered into a private office. I used to work in hospital administration and I knew what that usually meant—but this had to mean something different. We asked to see Jason, but were told we had to wait to speak to the doctor. Again, it was a sign I knew, but I could not accept.

I have relived that day in my mind so many times, but I really can’t tell you exactly what the doctor said—the message was clear—my beautiful son was gone. Apparently, Jason had been abusing prescription drugs and had overdosed. He was 19 years old.

This couldn’t be possible. I work in prevention. He knew the dangers. We talked about it often. We believed that he was not using drugs. I was so convinced that he was not using, it became a sort of joke between us—as he would leave home at the end of a weekend, I would frequently say, “Jason, don’t do drugs.” Then he would say, “I know, Mom, I won’t.” But he did.

In speaking with dozens of Jason’s friends after his death, we learned that his abuse of prescription drugs may have started after he began college, and apparently started to escalate the summer before he died. I know that he believed he was being safe. He used the internet to research the safety of certain drugs and how they react with others. As a pre-pharmacy major, he probably felt that he knew more about these drugs than he actually did, and perhaps had a “professional curiosity” about them. We also learned that he had visited several online pharmacies and ordered drugs from one Mexican pharmacy online. We found indications that this pharmacy automatically renewed his order each month. It was a simple process of a few clicks and the drugs were delivered right to his door.

I think back to the last several months of my son’s life, trying to identify any signs I might have missed. I remember that sometime during his first year in college, I discovered an unlabeled pill bottle in Jason’s room. I took the pills to my computer and identified them as a generic form of Ritalin. When I confronted Jason, he told me he got them from a friend who’d been prescribed the medication. He wanted to see if they would help him with his problem focusing in school. I took that opportunity to talk to him about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs. I told him that if he really thought he had A-D-D, we should pursue this with a clinician. He promised he would stop using the drug; and he even called the counseling office at school to make an appointment for an evaluation.

The only other sign I can remember is that one weekend when Jason was home I passed him in the kitchen and noticed that his eyes looked odd—his pupils were as small as pinpoints. I confronted him right there and then, asked him if he was on something. He said, “no, what’s wrong?” and went over to a mirror to see what I was talking about. He said that he didn’t know what was wrong—maybe it was because he was tired. I was suspicious, but his behavior was perfectly normal, so I let it go. There were no other signs until we got that horrible call on December 17, 2003 that changed our lives forever.

Jason touched so many lives in such a short time. He had many friends who cared for him deeply but just didn’t know how to help. I believe that education is key to preventing this tragedy from continuing. With the support of my office, we have developed a number of initiatives in our community to raise awareness about the dangers of prescription drug abuse. Something as simple as a mouse pad in a high school has already made a difference in someone’s life. By sharing Jason’s story, I hope we can help other families avoid the kind of heartache that my family has suffered.

Thank you for listening. I am happy to answer any questions that you might have.