'It's your little brother': Two years after his overdose, I still listen to that voicemail

On International Overdose Awareness Day, I will remember my brother Randy. I want to prevent more needless deaths.

Mike Abrams
Opinion contributor

Hi Mike, it’s your little brother, Randy. I was just wanting to call and touch base with you, and I know it has been a little while since we’ve talked. I’ll try giving you a call back maybe tomorrow afternoon sometime. I’ll be catching up with you over the next couple of days. Talk to you later. Bye.

That is the voicemail on my phone I can’t bring myself to delete. Eighteen days after leaving that message, Randy died of a fentanyl overdose in March 2019.

He was calling from the rehab hospital, where he had checked himself in nearly a month earlier. While the four other siblings all knew that at various points in his life he had struggled with drugs, none of us knew it had escalated to that degree.

He was trying to heal

The day after leaving me that message, he called back and we connected. He sounded great, saying things like: “This was exactly what I have needed for a long time and I’m so glad I did it,” and “I have never felt better in my life.” I was saying things like: “You’ve got this,” and “We’re all gonna be there for you.”

Our sister picked up Randy at the airport in Cincinnati. They noted that they both had moderate cold symptoms: sore throat, congestion. He said he was just going to go inside and go to bed. She got him settled.

The police reviewed his cellphone activity and determined that, before my sister pulled into her own driveway 9 miles away, he had called a dealer to sell him heroin. Before she fell asleep, he was dead.

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Randy wanted to live. He did not want to be the subject of a USA TODAY column. He was excited for life. A sober life, filled with cheering his sons’ graduations and the peaks and valleys life puts in our paths. He wanted to get back to the job he took pride in and return to church with his sisters. Randy spoke of things like this with us.  

Every overdose death is tragic. It’s tragic because it’s seemingly preventable. It’s tragic because it almost always takes someone who is “too young to die.” Randy was 50 and left two sons who loved their father, and his love helped them navigate the challenges and joys of being in their late teens.

Randy Abrams sits with sons Mike, foreground, and Luke, and their mom, Maryann King.

Tuesday is International Overdose Awareness Day, which aims to raise awareness that overdose death is preventable, to reduce the stigma associated with drug-related death and to acknowledge the grief of the family and friends left behind.

Do something to #ENDOVERDOSE

Hundreds of thousands of families across our country have experienced the devastating and frustrating impact of drug overdose, yet we don’t talk enough about this scourge. In my professional life, I do a significant amount of public speaking and write a biweekly column for hospital leaders in Ohio. Yet, this is my first public conversation about my brother.

It’s time we start talking more.

As we’ve been waging the war on COVID-19, out of the spotlight, overdoses are climbing. Drug overdose deaths in the United States rose 29.4% in 2020 to an estimated 93,331 – including 69,710 involving opioids, according to preliminary data released in July by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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These stark facts are behind the work my organization and many national and international groups are doing to share resources and shine a light on this issue. Families and friends across the USA should know that national and local prevention resources are available. A good starting point is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website and helpline.

Additionally, the CDC provides toolkits for families and community providers to understand their role in preventing overdoses.

Mike Abrams,  president and CEO of the Ohio Hospital Association

If your family, like mine, has sadly moved past prevention, the Overdose Awareness Day campaign has several ways you can share tributes for your loved one and connect with memorial events in your area for Tuesday.

The global campaign says: “Don’t let the day go by without doing something to #ENDOVERDOSE.” 

This column is my step.

Mike Abrams is president and CEO of the Ohio Hospital Association, which represents 245 hospitals and 15 health systems across the state. He was recently elected to the American Hospital Association Board of Trustees for a three-year term beginning in 2022. Randy Abrams lived in Hamilton, Ohio, and is survived by his sons Mike and Luke.