Annie Roth wants people to remember the story of her son in the choices they make each day.
Eighteen-year-old Joey Roth, a pole-vaulter and member of the Everett High School track team, avid snowboarder and skateboarder, died in September 2008 from a fatal, most likely unintentional, interaction of two prescription drugs.
She held him in her arms as he died in a hospital critical care unit. Soon after, her family was asked if they would give their approval for him to be an organ donor.
She, her husband and their sons and daughters didn’t hesitate. Annie Roth recalled a brief conversation on the topic when he was 16 and getting his driver’s license.
“We were kidding around,” his mom said. When she asked if he was going to be an organ donor he said: “Yeah, when I’m done with these things.”
His corneas, lungs, heart valves, kidneys, pancreas, skin and some bones have helped patients from Florida to Oregon.
His brain, liver and heart, though, have remained close to home, donated to a program now in its 20th year in Snohomish County, “Inside Out — The Original Organ Show.” It shows the effects smoking, drugs, alcohol and unhealthy eating can have on the body’s organs.
The educational program will be on display this Saturday and Sunday at the annual Mill Creek Festival. People can either peek at the damaged organs, or with gloved hands, touch them.
Rebecca Rose, a pulmonary rehabilitation specialist at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, has been helping make those presentations for the past decade at schools and community events, talking to as many as 6,000 students over the years.
Even with all that practice, she remembers her eyes welling up as she began to tell Joey’s story for the first time to a Sultan Middle School class in December 2008.
“I was at the very end of the presentation; I talk about the brain last,” she said.
She told them his brain was inflamed because of a lack of oxygen.
“This is not someone taking drugs or using alcohol,” Rose told the class. “You put something into your body … and your body has to do something with it. If you take that risk of taking your parent’s medications that are prescribed, it can cost you your life.”
Students who sometimes spontaneously respond with snappy one-liners to her talk suddenly were stunned into silence, she said. “I don’t think I realized the impact Joey’s story alone would have on the groups of people I speak with.”
His story underscores how prevalent the misuse of prescription drugs has become, she said. In fact, 1 in 5 U.S. high school students report they have taken a prescription drug — including powerful pain and anti-anxiety medications — without a doctor’s prescription, according to a study released last month by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Annie Roth said her son had been prescribed anti-depressants. Just before his death, he hadn’t been able to sleep for three consecutive nights. He also complained of extreme head pain.
“He kept saying he felt like his brain was on fire,” she said. “He was looking for something to help.”
One day he opened the family’s safe where prescription medications were kept. He took some tramadol, a prescription pain medication, apparently unaware that physicians are warned not to prescribe the medication to people who are taking some types of anti-depressants.
He went upstairs and finally, after days without sleep, was able to nap. About 9 p.m. on a Friday night, his girlfriend came to the house and woke him up.
His mom noticed that his speech was a little slurred. She didn’t think much about it. “So is mine when I just wake up,” she said.
Her son went to his girlfriend’s house. “He laid down and his brain went to sleep — no oxygen,” Roth said.
In the hospital, doctors discovered the lack of oxygen had caused his brain to swell. His brain stem herniated and about 24 hours later he was pronounced dead.
“I think Joey’s story can reach a lot of kids and adults,” his mom said. “When it says don’t take this medication unless it’s prescribed for you, then don’t take it. You don’t know what’s going to happen to you.”
The overall organ show presentation includes fatty plaque buildup in the heart’s aorta, lungs laden with tar from smoking, and a liver hardened from alcohol abuse.
Even some fellow health professionals, who have studied anatomy and physiology, are in awe when they see the effects that smoking and alcohol can have on the body, Rose said.
Rose’s display also includes a heart with a bullet hole in it. The damage caused by a young boy who was showing off his father’s gun when it accidentally discharged, killing his best friend, she said.
At last year’s Mill Creek Festival, three motorcycle riders, dressed out in leathers, stopped by the booth.
One man paused, completely silent for a moment, then reached into his back pocket and tossed a pack of cigarettes on the table, Rose said. He said a two-word phrase: “I’m done!”
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Mill Creek Festival
“Inside Out, the Original Organ Show” lets the public see the damage to the lungs, liver and other organs caused by smoking, drinking, abusing drugs and unhealthy eating. It can be seen 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday on Mill Creek Boulevard, just north of 164th St. SE.
For more information on the Mill Creek Festival, go to www.millcreekfestival.com.