At the age of 17, Colin Walker lost his life to fentanyl poisoning and his family is now working with national and local organizations to warn others of the growing risk of death when using drugs in hopes of saving lives.

“We’re determined to make sure kids and adults and parents and those that have influence know the dangers and are aware because we don’t want anybody to go through what we’re going through,” said Rob Walker, Colin Walker’s father.

Through choked-back tears, Rob Walker described his son as sensitive, arguing his ability to feel was both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, he struggled with anxiety and depression and had sought out support from medical professionals for years; but on the other, his feelings helped him care deeply for those around him.

To his family, Colin Walker was a doting big brother to his sister Kiera, 16, a birthday twin to his older brother Aidan, 20, a light to his parents and fondly known as his grandmother’s “sugar.”

Colin Walker was a Carlmont High School senior who cared about being good at the things he did, said Rob Walker. He was the type of person who would jump off the highest rock or fly his skateboard off the tallest set of stairs. He wanted to be a mentor to kids with developmental disabilities, having participated in a friendship group called the Lunch Bunch before it was disbanded after the spread of COVID-19 forced him and students everywhere to begin learning remotely.

“He wanted to do right,” said Rob Walker. “He wanted to help.”

The pandemic was hard on Colin Walker, his father said. Once an outgoing kid, Rob Walker said his son began to isolate and was less likely to reach out to friends. He started struggling in school, having had his sophomore year experience cut short and spent his entire junior year behind a computer screen.

The adjustment to in-person classes at the start of the 2021 fall semester was also tough, Rob Walker said. Big change had always been tough on the 17-year-old who had struggled when transitioning from middle school to high school, abandoning sports and advanced classes when increased competition sucked the fun out of his interests.

Soon after, Colin Walker also began smoking cannabis, a habit his parents would learn of early in his sophomore year of high school. Rob Walker said he and his wife took a realistic approach to their son’s weed use, encouraging him to speak honestly about his habits while also stressing the dangers of other drugs.

And Colin Walker showed signs of improvement after continuing his consultation with mental health and medical professions up until the morning before his death, Rob Walker said.

“He was a good kid. He was struggling and COVID really made it hard but he wanted to thrive. He really wanted to thrive,” said Rob Walker.

On the evening of Aug. 29, Colin Walker died in his bedroom after consuming cocaine laced with fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller up to 100 times more potent than morphine. Despite his parents sharing warnings of the risks of using hard drugs, Rob Walker said his son purchased the cocaine off of the social media app Snapchat which has become a hot spot for drug transactions.

Talking risks

Now months later, Rob Walker and wife Elizabeth are speaking up about their son’s death and an issue Rob Walker said has been incorrectly discussed as only an overdose problem. Instead, he said the public should recognize that people are being poisoned by a highly lethal drug being mixed into other substances including fake prescription pills, cocaine, and molly and ecstasy tablets.

“Kids are asking for a percocet or a xanax or an oxy but that’s not what they’re getting,” Rob Walker said, noting the risk is prevalent for long-time users and first-time dabblers alike. “There’s a strong differentiation between overdose and poisoning. These kids aren’t overdosing even though it’s called overdosing. They’re being poisoned.”

Suzie Hughes, executive director of One Life Counseling and longtime friend of the Walkers, said fentanyl has presented a whole new challenge for mental health and drug treatment providers.

Instead of following a standard progression of usage starting with first exposure, periodic use, addiction and potentially death, Hughes said the prevalence of fentanyl in drugs has cut that process short, resulting in young first-time users or those experimenting with party drugs to die before becoming addicted to substances.

Harm reduction methods like not using while alone or testing parts of a pill or powder are not fool-proof given how lethal fentanyl is even in small doses, said Scott Gilman, director of the county’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Services department. And without signs of use, Hughes said the window to intervene is essentially eliminated and leaves drug treatment experts whose work is to help treat a chronic disease at a loss.

“It’s too much and the community needs to act on it,” Hughes said. “Nobody knows what the answer is. What we know is that people need to know. People need to know that anything they take that’s in a pill or power form could kill them. The risk is too high. You’re risking your life.”

Deaths from synthetic opioids have been on the rise in San Mateo County, according to an overdose surveillance dashboard by the California Department of Public Health. In 2020, 81 residents died from an opioid overdose, a substantial increase from the 12 deaths reported in 2016. And most of those deaths in 2020 were related to fentanyl, according to the state’s data.

Taking action

Gilman said the department has been working on its messaging around the dangers of fentanyl, looking to other teens to help lead the effort and encouraging parents to begin discussing the risks at home.

“They need to be active. Parents shouldn’t sit back and wait for the schools to provide the information. They should really get out there and talk to their kids,” Gilman said. “This is really, really death if they get their hands on it.”

Through the Colin Walker Memorial Foundation the Walkers plan to launch an aggressive awareness campaign of their own. The organization is sponsoring its first informational event called “Drugs in the Age of Fentanyl,” at the Carlmont Performing Arts Center in Belmont at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 4.

The event is being held just days before the first annual National Fentanyl Awareness Day May 10 in partnership with One Life Counseling and Song for Charlie, a nonprofit charity started in honor of Charlie Ternan who died May 14, 2020, after taking a fentanyl-laced percocet to treat an aching back.

By sharing Ternan and Colin Walker’s stories, their families hope to save lives, Rob Walker said, suggesting even one life and reducing the stigma around drug use would be worth the effort.

“We get the chance to share his story so others can learn from him. And that’s kind of who he was. He was a mentor. He was a leader,” Rob Walker said. “Now he’s just leading in a different way.”

Visit eventbrite.com/e/drugs-in-the-age-of-fentanyl-tickets-315043773407 to register for the event.

sierra@smdailyjournal.com

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

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(9) comments

Dirk van Ulden

I am a bit confused about Mr. Walker's final comments on the tragic death of his son. With all due respect, where is his outrage at the easy availability of this lethal drug? Is he aware that under the current administration fentanyl imports have increased exponentially? Why isn't he screaming at the DHS Secretary for not causing the flood of these imports to be curtailed or even eliminated? That could save lives instead of reminding us of a promising, struggling young man whose life was so sadly cut short.

Tommy Tee

Dirk--you're a heartless jerk.

Terence Y

Tommy Tee, some would say California’s policy of continually releasing criminals back into the CA wild is heartless. Some would say misguided prosecutors unwilling to prosecute are heartless. Some would say Biden abetting an invasion from the south is heartless. Some would say Biden providing aid and comfort to the Taliban is heartless. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?

Tommy Tee

With are you talking about? Nothing to do with this issue, though not surprising coming from you. A family is in pain, and Dirk politicizes their pain.

Dirk van Ulden

Tommy Tee - thanks for your mindless compliment. When kids are gunned down, there is an immediate outcry about gun control and legislators are urged to take action. Where are you when this tragic death could have been averted had our legislators and our president taken action to mitigate the easy availability of this fatal drug? I am not taking anything away from the parents in their grief but when such tragedies occur, our media and your ilk are generally absent in demanding action.

Tommy Tee

Thank you for your mindless comment. No need to politicize this. Families are in grief and trying to help others. You just had to turn it into a political argument, but that's not surprising. Your comment "with all due respect," was shallow. However, readers on here expect no less from you and your ilk.

Have a good day, Mr. Wilson.

Terence Y

100% Dirk, 100%. Seems Tommy is none too happy when you expose his hypocrisy.

Westy

Dirk, I second the comment that you are a heartless jerk. Terence as well. Mindless regurgitations of right-wing talking points that have Zero to do with this tragic loss.

Dirk van Ulden

Yes Westy - you and TT seem to have a problem with connecting the dots. But, what else should I expect from diehard liberals who don't recognize hypocrisy even if it hits them between the eyes. Handwringing, prayers, sympathy and duplicitous talk don't help our future victims; real action by your do nothing administration will. Remember MADD, where the mothers of victims took action and initiated a slew of legislative activities. They received sympathy but that was not enough for them.

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