Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Opinion

Romano: New law a year too late to save Joey Boylan

The party that cost Joey Boylan his life was not much of a party at all.

Just a handful of friends in a modest home at the end of a cul-de-sac. The parental types were away for the weekend, which meant the teenagers were bound to congregate.

The police would later say the house appeared to have been tidied up before they arrived. The participants would later tell differing stories of exactly how the night unfolded.

One year later, only a few facts seem beyond dispute:

Boylan, an 18-year-old football player at Tarpon Springs High, ingested a dangerous mix of prescription drugs and had to be carried back into the house after passing out.

He was not able to stand. His breathing was labored. His friends sprayed water on him in a bathtub, and then hoisted him onto a bed. They were concerned enough about his condition to retrieve a portable blood pressure device to check his pulse.

And then six of Joey Boylan's friends went to sleep while he gradually died of an overdose in an unfamiliar home at the end of an unforgiving night.

•••

Less than 24 hours from now, a new law will go on the books in Florida, a law designed to prevent exactly the type of situation that contributed to Boylan's death.

The official language is Section 893.21 of the Florida statutes, but the law is more commonly known as the 911 Good Samaritan Act.

It says, essentially, that in an overdose situation, a person can call 911 without danger of being arrested for possessing or ingesting drugs.

In other words, the half-dozen friends who waited more than nine hours to call 911 the night Boylan overdosed would have had no reason to fear police if this had been the law of the land in September 2011.

"Kids don't want to call because they're afraid of getting in trouble. Parents don't want to call because they know kids shouldn't be drinking in their homes," said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Boca Raton, who introduced the new law. "Before this law, they basically had an incentive not to call law enforcement when someone was overdosing.

"Our first focus has to be on the safety of our children and others. After that, we can worry about the civil liability."

Florida is one of nine states to have passed a version of the 911 Good Samaritan Act, and it is arguably the state that has needed it the most.

Overdoses have tripled in the United States in the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Florida's prescription drug mess has been a major factor in the growing problem.

If you combine Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, there was an average of more than 600 overdose deaths a year from prescription medications in 2010-11.

That means someone has died of an overdose, on average, every 14 hours in the Tampa Bay area the past two years.

•••

The hardest part is dealing with the night.

When the TV is turned off, and the house is quiet. When Joey's older brother has returned to his home and his younger sister is safe in her bed.

That's when Joey's mother rises from another sleepless night and walks outside her Tarpon Springs home at 3 a.m. to stare at a sky filled with stars.

"I couldn't have loved that little kid any more than I did. It's the only thing that has gotten me through this," Angela Boylan said. "You know, every night after dinner he would say, 'Thank you, Momma.' Who does that? Who thanks their mom for dinner?

"I think about that, and I guess that's how God has eased my pain, because I know that I told him I loved him every single day of his life."

At this point, it appears the details of Joey's death will never be completely reconciled. Angela recognizes this, but still has difficulty accepting it.

She knows he left work at Cap'n Jack's Waterfront Grille late on a Friday, and she knows he stopped at an acquaintance's house to pick up a cellphone charger.

Somewhere along the line, he swallowed a fentanyl patch as well as oxycodone pills. Fentanyl is a potent pain reliever often prescribed to cancer patients.

The combination of drugs knocked him out, and police reports describe at least some level of conversation between his friends about calling 911. In the end, they opted to keep an eye on him overnight but instead fell asleep while his organs began shutting down.

There was some discussion about manslaughter charges because some of the partygoers suggested they were intimidated into not calling 911, but the state attorney's office concluded there was not enough evidence to pursue a case.

"It's truly tragic, and I feel for his mother," said Fred Schaub, the felony division director for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

"If this new law does what it's supposed to do, I think it can save some lives."

•••

Six people. Each one in a position to save a young man's life. Each, for whatever reason, deciding it was better to let Joey Boylan sleep it off.

At times, Angela Boylan feels extreme anger. At other times, she feels a helplessness. All of the time, she feels a tremendous sense of grief.

"I would like some accountability. Someone to explain how or why this happened, because I don't understand it," she said. "Maybe this law is the reason. Maybe that's the positive that comes out of something like this.

"Because if a life can be saved, if a mother's child is laying there helpless … "

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