Motorcycles and Heroin: shattered ankle, shattered lives



As I write this, tears are welling up in my eyes. I still can’t believe my son is gone. The months after his death were a fog filled with heartache, guilt and unbearable pain. I will never lay my eyes on my son again, I will never hug him or have my heart filled with joy at the sound of his laugh. The ache in my heart is a physical weight I carry with me every second of every day.  Everything I do, everything I am, carries with it the ghost of ‘what should be’- because my world has changed. It is a new world with empty spaces my son Josh used to – and should still – fill with his indescribable glow of energy, joy and life.

A shattered ankle killed my boy. It would take six years, but the stage was set the day my young, handsome, full of life son lost control of his dirt bike. Josh instinctively put his foot down to keep from crashing the bike and shattered his ankle; leaving his foot detached from his leg.

This is Josh’s story. It is also the story of so many other victims of the Opioid/Opiate Epidemic ravaging our country today. I tell his story to honor him and to help raise awareness so others can know the dangers of these medications prescribed for pain. Awareness and education are the keys to prevention.

My first son Joshua was born on June 5, 1983. He was small – only 4lbs 12oz. From the very beginning Josh was a fighter who caught up in no time and grew to be a 6’ 5” strapping young man with a smile that would light up a room.

Josh was always ready to take on the world and had many passions, motorcycles being at the forefront. His dad bought him his first quad when he was 3 and he was hooked! He later went on to race dirt bikes, and even built his own Harley.

Josh was very mechanically inclined and went to a technical high school where he studied HVAC. After graduation, he decided to join the Air Force… we were all so proud! When Josh returned home from the service, he became an HVAC mechanic and continued his hobby of buying and restoring motorcycles. Being a mother of 4 boys, someone was always getting hurt Josh definitely had his share.

In May of 2009 when Josh was 25, my son Zach called to tell me his brother had crashed his dirt bike. I later learned that the neighbors came out and put a pillow under his head in the middle of the street until the ambulance arrived. I will always be grateful for their quick response and the kindness they showed my son on this horrible day.

Josh would go on to have multiple surgeries. A piece of his hip was grafted into his ankle, which was also pinned and screwed. He had to deal with a case of MRSA, an infection caused by a type of staph bacteria that is resistant to many of the antibiotics used to treat ordinary staph infections. MRSA is difficult to treat and extremely painful. Eventually the ankle was surgically fixed in place. He dealt with incredible pain daily and was told by his doctors the only real way to deal with the pain would be to amputate.

Eventually, his doctors took him off all pain medications – but it was too late. Josh was addicted. He went to the streets to find medication for his pain. When the pain pills became difficult to afford, he ended up on heroin.

My husband, Josh’s step-dad, told me that one of the last times he and Josh had a heart-to-heart, Josh told him how very sad he was. He wanted to get and stay clean, but it was too difficult. He felt ashamed, depressed and hopeless.

Josh started seeing a counselor and we all thought he was on the right track.

The night before Josh died, he had complained to his dad of a terrible case of heartburn that wasn’t getting better. Josh’s bedroom was in the basement of his father’s house and the next morning, knowing that Josh didn’t feel well, his dad wasn’t concerned when he slept late. It was close to noon and his father starting calling downstairs for Josh to wake up. He called several times, but there was no answer. His father finally went downstairs to find Josh kneeling with his face on the bed, as if he was praying. His dad said, “what the heck are you doing”, but again no answer. He lifted his head and Josh was blue, he was gone. There was a pack of cigarettes on the floor next to him, and a syringe.

I received a phone call early afternoon from Josh’s Grandmother. I was downstairs in my office working and my husband called down to say the phone was for me. When I finally understood what she was telling me, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees and screamed, “Oh my God, Oh my Josh!!!” My son was dead. My head was swirling. This couldn’t be real. I couldn’t breathe. How? Why? It must be a mistake!  I just wanted to see Josh and hold him-  but I couldn’t – because it was real, and I would never see my beautiful boy’s face again. The next few days were a blur filled with agony and disbelief. All I could do was cry and ask ‘why?’.

The funeral was planned and my job was to do the memory boards for the wake. It was very difficult for me to look through 31 years of pictures. So many images of my blond, curly headed baby – Josh smiling proudly in his Boy Scout uniform, playing baseball, riding his motorcycles and turning into the handsome man he had become in his Air Force uniform. Today, almost two years later, I am unable to take those memory boards out of the bag I placed them in to bring home after his funeral.

Josh was cremated and his ashes were put into a marble box. A picture of him in his Air Force uniform was placed next to the box. The priest came, several people stood and talked about Josh, we laughed, and we cried.  Then it was time to move to the cemetery for a military burial.

As they played taps, my body trembled and I couldn’t stop crying. I was surrounded by my three sons, my husband, my sister and other family members. After everything was said and it was time to leave I went to the marble box with my son’s ashes and said goodbye, told him that I loved him and kissed the top of the box. No mother should have to kiss cold marble and walk away, leaving her 31-year-old son at the cemetery because he broke his ankle.

These senseless deaths have risen at an alarming rate over the past few years. In 2015 (the last numbers released) there were 52,404 deaths due to drug overdose in the US – averaging out to 144 deaths per day.  (Addiction Policy – Understanding the Numbers)

It took almost a year to get the autopsy results as they are backlogged with the overwhelming amount of deaths due to drugs. The cause of death was a heroin/fentanyl overdose.

In honor of my son, I have started the Joshua’s Tree Memorial Fund. I am a producer of a local TV show and have been nominated for two New England Emmy’s. Joshua’s Tree is a memorial fund to raise money to help in my dream of making a documentary on drug addiction and how it touches everyone. I believe that prevention is the key and my hope is to have it shown in classrooms at an early age to educate, raise awareness and help in the prevention of addiction.

Please visit my website: The Wish Store where I am selling the Joshua’s Tree necklace. It is a beautiful tree pendant to help raise funds. I chose the symbol of the tree with its branches reaching out with comfort and healing and its roots standing firm as a message of hope and strength.

I hope that whoever buys the pendant will wear it with pride, knowing that they are a part of the fight against this horrible epidemic.

My wish is that no one will have to bury a child due to a heroin overdose.

Please share Josh’s story.  If this helps just one person then my wish has come true.

I love you Josh!

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Helen Ryba has been in the graphic design field for more than 30 years owning the award-winning Design Agency, Spark Design, as well as the producer of the Emmy-nominated “The Chef’s Plate” TV Show. She recently started two subscription box services, Spiced UP and The Wish Store. Through The Wish Store, Helen has set up the Joshua’s Tree Memorial Fund in honor of her late son Joshua Romanski. You can follow her on Facebook at Joshua’s Tree.