They were two sons much loved by their families. Jacob Bulloch was an avid drummer and loved to laugh. He loved his pets and he loved his mom. William Hazelwanter loved all things sports though he also had an entrepreneurial spirit. He was always protective of his loved ones. Both Jacob and William had their struggles with mental health, but their lives held so much potential; potential which they were never able to fully realize as both Jacob and William would die due to drug poisoning.
Today, their mothers and Airdrie residents Cheryl Bulloch and Julie Hazelwanter are speaking out not only as mothers who have lost their children but also as advocates on behalf of all families who may be dealing with substance use.
Cheryl Bulloch’s son Jacob was in his early teens (14) when he started experimenting with drugs.
"He was a good kid until the drugs got into him. It changed who he was. You could tell when he was using because he was really angry and negative. He hated everything, he hated himself."
His mother said Jacob was bullied in school for most of his young life; that coupled with mental health struggles and Jacob's social circle meant that his experimentation with substances would soon overtake his life.
"He was missing a lot of school and fighting with me and [I] had to kick him out, so he went and lived with a friend who was dealing, which I didn't know at the time," she said. "He lived with this kid for about six months and during those six months, he tried practically everything. I watched him go from probably 210 pounds to 160 pounds in six months."
When Jacob was 18 and after numerous hospitalizations for depression, he decided he wanted to go to rehab. He completed two rehab stays, back-to-back.
After leaving one rehab stay earlier than planned, Jacob wanted to move back home to Airdrie to be closer to his family. However, his mother had her trepidations.
"I didn't really want him to come home because I didn't think it would be good and it would probably trigger a lot of things. I can pretty much guarantee the first night he was home, he was back to using," Bulloch said. "So that was September 13, 2020. He was kicked out a month later and on the streets. From the streets [he] went to a group home."
Though Jacob was initially optimistic about the group home setting, Cheryl was alarmed at what he told her; there was no drug testing, hence no motivation for anyone to stay away from substances. Her intuition was heartbreakingly correct.
"Two weeks later, I got the call that they found him in his room, and he had overdosed. His heart had stopped so they had to get it going a couple of times."
Jacob was transported to the hospital, where he would be placed on a ventilator and sedated, while doctors closely observed whether he had any signs of brain damage.
"The next day he was alert and responding. He was squeezing our hands, wiggling his toes and trying to blink," she said. "We thought he was going to make it, but then the next morning, I called to see how he was, and they said he had seizures the night before and he had one pupil that was dilated, but they're waiting for the doctor to come."
Batteries of tests were performed, and different physicians were consulted, but ultimately the prognosis was devastating. Jacob was brain-dead.
"The doctor said, 'I can't imagine what you're going through. I have four kids.' And I said, 'My kid used drugs. He was not a junkie; it wasn't by choice.' It was because he had suffered from mental health issues. The first time he overdosed, he was told by a doctor that he had to deal with his drug issue first and then he could deal with his mental health issue. So, they would never ever treat him like he actually had a disability. They just looked at him like he was just trash because he used drugs."
Jacob was 19 years old when he died on November 15, 2020.
"We donated five of his organs, so five other people got to live because of Jacob. He had said when he came back from rehab that he wanted to be a doctor, that he wanted to save lives and help people," Bulloch said. "Well, he did in the end. It was bittersweet, but I do believe it's opened people's eyes now."
Two years before Jacob died, he attended the funeral of William Hazelwanter, Julie's son. William, or Willie, as his mom called him, started using drugs when he was a few years younger than Jacob. However, William's substance use started in the early 90s, a time when resources and education were scarce and public awareness of addiction and mental health were taboo. William, who was an intelligent young man, and a hard worker would work on the oil rigs in Alberta, which his mother said may not have been the best place for him.
"I don't think [it's a good] atmosphere for someone who has an addictive personality. He was in and out of rehab as well as the remand center(s). But [when] it starts out with going to jail, you start meeting all these people that are in gangs, and you end up getting more involved in the drug culture beyond just using," Hazelwanter said. "I don't think that was very good. I don't think the jail system is where people who use drugs should end up."
Jail only served to deepen William's drug use, as he would overdose in custody. However, William was able to stop using substances for some time, but what seemed to be hope for William would not last long.
"The problem with that is once you're clean, it takes a lot less [substances to overdose]. He ended up overdosing [when he was] by himself when he was 35."
William died on October 27, 2018.
Both Bulloch and Hazelwanter underlined that oftentimes, individuals who use substances, both legal and illegal, are trying to self-medicate due to mental health issues that are not properly diagnosed at younger ages. However, it was the shared grief of losing their sons that brought the two women together, united in something more than heartbreak.
"One of the reasons we did get together on this is because there's not a lot of resources for family members. Where do they go? Who can they talk to? [There's] the stigma around it, people don't want to talk about it. And even with the kids going through this, I believe, at least in Airdrie, there are not enough resources and that are out there to help."
On August 31, Bulloch, Hazelwanter and Kim Risler will be hosting their second annual Airdrie Overdose Awareness Day from 3 till 8 P.M.at Nose Creek Regional Park.
"We would just like to make the awareness to help families and loved ones find resources and to know that they are not alone, as well as for people who use drugs that we have harm reduction on sight. We would like to try and remove the stigma around drug use," Hazelwanter said. "Last year, 1758 Albertans passed away from overdoses; that's almost five people per day.”
Various events are planned, including fundraising for the Airdrie Food Bank, a silent auction to help cover some of the expenses for the event, as well as funds that will go towards installing a memorial bench in the park, as well as a candlelight vigil.
"We also are doing a purple ribbon campaign and would ask people to bring their pictures of their loved ones to hang in the park again this year."
From January to June 2022, 786 people died as a result of acute drug poisoning in Alberta. 73 per cent of those who died were men, with the 35 to 39 age group being the most high-risk. In the Calgary zone, nearly 50 per cent of the opioid deaths were in private residences. From January till March of this year, 67 per cent of those who died as a result of pharmaceutical opioid poisoning sought out mental health services within a month of their death.
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