HomeCommunity NewsWhen One Pill Can Kill: Fentanyl Crisis Hits Home

When One Pill Can Kill: Fentanyl Crisis Hits Home

By Mia Alva and Gavin J. Quinton
Glendale News-Press

Charlie Ternan was a typical 22-year-old college student who was set to graduate in just three weeks when he suddenly died of a fentanyl overdose in 2020.
After spending two months with his parents during the COVID-19 lockdown, he wanted to spend his last few weeks of college on campus with his friends at Santa Clara University in the Silicon Valley. After one week back at school, his college friends found him dead.
As fentanyl deaths were not as common at that time, Ternan’s parents had no idea it would soon become a full-blown crisis in cities big and small, including Glendale.
“Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. It is a major contributor to fatal and nonfatal overdoses in California and the United States,” states the California Department of Public Health website.
Glendale data rates for overdose deaths gathered by the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office are staggering.
In 2020, there were 32 drug overdose deaths in Glendale, and in 2021 there was a total of 29 deaths. The Glendale Police Department told the News-Press that it is difficult to identify if overdoses are solely related to fentanyl as most of reports reveal a combination of drugs in victims’ bodies.
Experts at the CDPH estimate that 83% of all opioid-related deaths in the state can be attributed to fentanyl, and it is a leading killer nationally, taking the lives of more young Americans than COVID-19, car accidents or gun fatalities.
Locally, the growth of fentanyl-related deaths is in line with national trends showing overdoses have doubled every year since 2019. Those are not expected to slow anytime soon, according to the CDPH. In the San Fernando Valley, for example, Los Angeles County reported that about 75% of fentanyl deaths in the region were people between the ages of 18 and 39. There were 663 total deaths in the period between 2016 and 2021, and 495 of those were people between the ages of 18 and 39.
Overdose is more common in young people like Ternan as they fall into a demographic that is more likely to experiment with drugs or purchase pills over the internet.
The issue touches every corner of the country. Deaths by drug overdose in the United States surpassed 100,000 annually in 2021 and death by synthetic opioids — which includes fentanyl — increased 97-fold in a 10-year span.
Fentanyl is manufactured in a variety of bright colors, shapes and sizes, and has been made to look like prescription pills such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, Adderall and Xanax in the illegal drug trade, according to police.
Fake pills are often pressed with markings that imitate real prescription medication. Other street opioids like heroin are also commonly laced with fentanyl because they have similar effects, while fentanyl is cheap, easy to manufacture and is extremely potent in small sizes, making it convenient for drug traffickers to transport.
But even a tiny dose of fentanyl, no larger than a grain of sand, is often lethal. When illicit drug makers who have no pharmaceutical training combine fentanyl with other drugs and fillers, the results can be deadly.
That’s what happened to Ternan, who went on social media with a friend from his fraternity to find pills. They were initially looking for Xanax to take for the afternoon to relax and play video games, but Ternan noticed that the person online was also selling Percocet.
Ternan had back surgery in 2018 and was originally prescribed Percocet for the pain. This was why he chose Percocet over Xanax since his back was still hurting.
“Our family’s full of spinal stenosis, a narrow spine,” said Charlie Ternan’s father, Ed Ternan. “Mary’s had the surgery and Charlie’s sister had the surgery. He had a surgery for a damaged disc.”
The last time anyone had talked to him was 3:15 p.m. on the day he died, and it wasn’t until his friends checked on him a few hours later that they knew anything was wrong.
“Charlie was found by his friends, when they were getting ready to make dinner around 7:30 p.m. that night and by that time, he’d been gone for hours, and we got the phone call,” Ed Ternan said.
Ed and Mary Ternan were devastated when they heard the news about their son. It was their first time hearing about sudden fentanyl overdoses and it left the couple in shock.
“According to the doctors, within 15 minutes of taking the pill, he probably died,” said Ed Ternan. “So, we know that’s what killed him because they found the other pills that he and his friend had bought in the room. So, we know that he took one pill, and we know that that one pill killed him.”
The family at first thought their son died from overdosing on Xanax, asking themselves how this could be possible. They knew their son was not an addict.
“How many Xanax would Charlie have had to take to die from it? What did we miss?” they asked. “We didn’t see any signs of addiction, and he was gone in a week. We were with him for two months. He was fine.”
It wasn’t until the next day that they found out their son had died from fentanyl and not a series of Xanax pills. The homicide investigator told Ed Ternan that he had seen seven fentanyl deaths in the previous 10 days in Santa Clara County.
Charlie Ternan was just like any other kid in college, said Ed Ternan, as he reminisced on his son’s character. He was warm-hearted, smart, empathetic and someone who could bring people together. The Loyola High School graduate had a passion for economics and the arts.
Now, after three years, the void of their son passing still looms large.
“It’s still a disaster,” said Ed Ternan. “We suffer every day. Anyone will tell you that the loss of a child is the most devastating thing you can experience.”
Ed Ternan said that if they had known to teach their son of the dangers of fentanyl, he probably wouldn’t have died. The family, just months after their son’s death, started their nonprofit, Song for Charlie, that brings awareness to young adults, parents and educators about counterfeit prescription pills being sold online targeting young people.
Their tagline is three simple words: “No random pills.”
“We need to empower young people, and parents and caregivers with accurate information delivered in a nonjudgmental way, so they can have productive conversations about the new chemical drug landscape, in the home, at school, with their friends, what they see online,” said Ed Ternan. “People just need to know what’s really going on so that they can make healthier choices.”
“We said to ourselves, ‘we need to tell other people that this is happening,’ because we began to meet other parents who it has happened to,” he added.


Dr. Edwin Peck is an emergency medicine physician and fentanyl expert at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena. Peck treats addiction and overdose cases daily and is developing several programs in Huntington’s emergency department around the treatment of opioid use disorders with opioid overdose as a focus.
According to Peck, fentanyl deaths are usually sudden, and the resulting trauma of the families of the deceased can be different than that of a lifelong user.
“The issue with fentanyl now, is that you can have a teenager experimenting, or just using Adderall that they did not get from a physician for productivity reasons. These things can now be laced with fentanyl, and these people will die suddenly with nobody around,” Peck told the News-Press.
Peck said that the grieving process is markedly different with fentanyl overdoses.
“There’s no difference in the tragedy between a family losing a loved one to a drug addiction problem over decades versus a sudden one. But there is a difference in the trauma that occurs to the four-person family when one of the teenagers makes a single mistake and is very abruptly taken away,” he said.
“That’s similar to losing somebody to gun violence or to a car accident where that abrupt trauma really brings the whole family to its knees and many families do not make it through,” he added.
To Peck, there is no better immediate solution to the opioid crisis than getting Narcan into every home, business and public organization. Still, for the long term, better education and policy is needed to combat the crisis, Peck said.


Naloxone, also referred to by the brand name Narcan, is an opioid antagonist that rapidly reverses the effects of an opioid. Touted as a “miracle drug,” Narcan has proven to be incredibly powerful against opioid overdose. With a fentanyl overdose specifically, public health experts recommend two or more doses of Narcan may be needed.
“If it were a perfect world, I’d have everybody with [Narcan] in their backpack, in their pocket, because it’s such an easy, safe solution when someone is overdosing,” Peck said. “But, long term, that solution can be seen as a Band Aid for a gunshot wound, because when you’re alone, it doesn’t matter how much Narcan there is. The education, the understanding and the greater approach to how we go about drug use has to improve because fentanyl will not be the last thing that comes up.”
Dr. Angelique Campen, an emergency physician and fentanyl expert, said that fentanyl-related overdoses are a daily occurrence in the emergency room at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank.
“In my eight-hour shift [recently], there were two patients that needed Narcan to reverse the effects of fentanyl. It happens daily,” Campen told the News-Press.
Narcan, which can be bought over the counter or picked up for free at most hospitals, including PSJMC and Huntington Hospital, comes as a nasal spray, and is incredibly safe and easy to administer, Campen said.
“When I train police officers or community members about the use of Narcan, I stand in front of them and spray one up my nose just to show that it will not hurt you. If you think of using it, use it. You cannot hurt someone by giving them Narcan,” said Campen, who engages in training and public education when she is not busy saving lives at PSJMC.

Charlie Ternan (right) was someone who could bring people together.


As Narcan becomes more commonly adopted as a lifesaving remedy against fentanyl overdoses, school districts and police departments are taking advantage of the tool.
Capt. Robert William from the Glendale Police Department said that all police cars have a medical emergency kit that carries Narcan. Every single officer is trained in how to use it, which started in the last three to four years.
William said that police officers use Narcan almost every day to help someone.
The department also has Narcan scattered throughout the building with a kit on every floor.
“We’ve seen in our profession that even officers, when they’re dealing with drug users and drug dealers, and when they come across fentanyl, the exposure is so potent that they may be overdosing,” said William.
The Glendale Central Library also carries Narcan in case of an emergency, said William.
William started doing his own research to learn the dangers of fentanyl and specifically looking for statistics in Glendale, since it is impossible for a police department to know if someone died of an overdose or not. Through the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, he has been able to get numbers of opioid overdoses in Glendale going back to 2010.
“Since 2010, the rate of accidental overdose deaths is definitely increasing,” said William. “But in 2020, it really skyrocketed.”
He compared the numbers of deaths related to overdose and the number of murders, suicides and fatal accidents.
“If you take all of our murders and traffic fatal accidents, and suicides and combine them together, it’s significantly less than our overdose rate,” he added. “It’s become disheartening for a lot of police departments knowing that there isn’t a real true way of dealing with this problem.”
Since his discovery and research, he made it his responsibility to make sure the department does its part in combating the crisis. The department has developed a three-tier approach that includes education, enforcement and intervention.
For education, GPD contributed to talks with the community on the dangers of fentanyl. Currently, the department has plans to produce a 30-minute documentary for students to learn the dangers of drugs through a grant-funded opportunity. The department also plans to run a social media campaign to target young community members.
“We intend to use that documentary with our Glendale Unified School District,” said William. “A documentary that we want kids at the middle school level and higher to watch, and then we also want their parents to watch it.”
The enforcement tier is an approach to target the dealers who are selling opioids or pills laced with fentanyl. Through the Drug Enforcement Administration, GPD is able to target dealers more easily since the Los Angeles district attorney does not file any criminal charges against people for drug possession since the decriminalization policy.
“We partner with our federal agencies to go after the drug dealers and charge them with federal crimes versus state level,” said William.
Through a $1 million grant from state Sen. Anthony Portantino in 2021, the department is able to create and pay for three salaried positions to push their initiative for intervention.
“What we do that’s different is immediately after your arrest, at some point, whether you are still in our custody, or you’ve been cited out, you will be contacted by a civilian employee, who’s a professional interventionist, and will offer you resources to see what kind of help they can give you,” said William.
Since his research on fentanyl, William now follows up with the coroner’s office every year to see where the city is at.
“There’s some good news in the sense that there’s a lot of talk right now about fentanyl,” said William. “There’s been a lot of push, a lot of education, certainly on our part from the police department.
“I think the availability of Narcan is becoming more and more available, but probably not enough,” said William. “I almost want to say we’re at a point in a crisis where wherever you turn, you should be able to find Narcan.”
Kristine Nam, the communications director for the Glendale Unified School District, said that every elementary, middle and high school has Narcan, and that all administrators, health clerks and health office staff have received training on how to administer it.
“The district has provided students and families with a lot of resources about fentanyl — particularly last year when the rainbow fentanyl crisis was happening,” said Nam, adding that the district did a presentation last fall in coordination with the Glendale Police Department.
She said that the district has a page on their website about its efforts to protect students against the dangers of fentanyl and other substances.
Director of Student Support Services Ago Eulmessekian added that each school, facility site and the district office have 26 doses of Narcan.
“We also have doses for our morning and after-school programs,” said Eulmessekian. “The doses are located in the front office or health office, depending on the campus.”
The district also coordinates with Impact Canine Solutions, which utilizes drug-sniffing dogs to detect and minimize the presence of contraband substances in facilities.
Despite the widespread availability of Narcan, fentanyl cases and deaths in California are increasing at “an unpredictable pace,” according to the California Department of Public Health. The most recent statistics from the CDPH show that there were 5,961 deaths due to fentanyl overdose in 2021, and 7,175 opioid deaths statewide.
In the upcoming year’s state budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom has allocated more than $1 billion to crack down on opioid trafficking and enforce the law, combat overdoses, support those with opioid use disorder and raise awareness about the dangers of opioids.
Under the CalRx Naloxone Access Initiative, the state will allocate $30 million to support a partner in developing, manufacturing, procuring and distributing a naloxone nasal product under the CalRx label.
“One more fatal overdose is one too many. California is tackling the opioid epidemic from all sides,” said Newsom. “Naloxone is, quite literally, a lifesaver — so we are making it more accessible and affordable for anyone who needs it.”
The state Department of Health Care Services created the Naloxone Distribution Project in 2018 to combat opioid overdose-related deaths in California through the provision of free naloxone. As of June 25, the NDP has distributed more than 2.6 million naloxone kits, resulting in more than 181,665 reported overdose reversals.
Community members can also order Narcan and learn how to tell the signs of an overdose. For more information, visit cdph.ca.gov and search “NaloxoneStandingOrder,” or visit a hospital.
For educational resources, visit the Ternans’ website at songforcharlie.org. To view the Glendale Unified School District page on fentanyl, visit gusd.net/Page/16018

First published in the August 5 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.

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