The phone at Bruce Brandler's home rang at 3:37am. It was the local hospital. His 16-year-old son was there. A suspected heroin overdose, the nurse said. Brandler didn't believe it. Erik had his problems, but heroin? It seemed impossible. Nearly 10 years later, the nation is gripped by a spiraling crisis of opioid and heroin abuse—and Brandler, a veteran federal prosecutor recently promoted to interim US attorney, suddenly finds himself in a position to do something about the scourge that claimed his youngest son's life. Until now, he has never publicly discussed Erik's overdose death. It was private and just too painful. But Brandler, now the chief federal law enforcement officer for a judicial district that covers half of Pennsylvania, said he felt a responsibility that came with his new, higher-profile job.
"I want to evaporate the myth that heroin addicts are just homeless derelicts," Brandler tells the AP in an interview; before his son's overdose, he held that impression himself. The opioid crisis was already taking root when Brandler began having problems with Erik, the youngest of his three children. Brandler found marijuana in the teen's room and talked to him about it, figuring that was the extent of his drug use. Then, in spring 2007, an Ecstasy OD landed Erik in the hospital. "I took what I thought were appropriate steps," Brandler says. He called the police on his son's dealer, who was prosecuted. That summer, Erik completed an intensive treatment program. Brandler thought his son had turned a corner. He was mistaken, and in August 2007, Erik fatally overdosed. Read the full article for Brandler's plan to combat overdose deaths from heroin and painkillers. (Read more heroin stories.)