Ryan’s story: Family hopes their openness about Ryan’s heroin overdose will help others


By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

OXFORD — Ryan Quinlan looked forward to a fresh start. He signed up for fall classes and was working the front desk at a hotel in Cedar Rapids. But the 27-year-old “awesome person with a wonderful smile who had so much potential,” lost his struggle with heroin addiction on July 21. “It was an accidental overdose,” his mother said. “I had talked to him that day.”

Family and friends bid farewell at a funeral Mass at St. Mary Catholic Church in Oxford. Father Edmond Dunn presided and gave the homily (read it on page 2). Ryan’s parents, Rachel and Tom Quinlan, agreed to share Ryan’s story in hopes of helping another person to avoid drug addiction and the suffering of their family members who love them dearly.

The Quinlan family shares their story about Ryan, who died of a heroin overdose. This picture was taken following the baptism of his nephew Brooks: pictured are, from left, Ryan (in maroon), Wes, Nick holding Brooks and Hannah.

“Ryan had so many hopes and dreams. Those dreams were darkened by his anxiety and depression which turned into drug addiction,” his parents told The Messenger. “The system to help mental health sufferers or drug addicts needs to improve. This was evident on numerous occasions when Ryan would reach out for treatment. He would have to schedule 6-8 weeks out which was not the help he needed, he needed help now.


“We don’t know what the answer is to this mental health illness/drug addiction war but it does need to start with awareness and education. So, if a user reads this and doesn’t use, or if a family reads this and does not give up on their addicted son or daughter, or if another family does not have to go through what we are going through, then that is a start on ending this war against drugs.”

Ryan’s parents noted that “Addiction does not discriminate, it can happen to anyone.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) echoes that statement. The use of heroin, a synthetic, highly addictive opioid that can produce intense feelings of euphoria, “has been increasing in recent years among men and women, most age groups, and all income levels,” the CDC reports. “Some of the greatest increases have occurred in demographic groups with historically low rates of heroin use: women, the privately insured, and people with higher incomes. In particular, heroin use has more than doubled in the past decade among young adults aged 18 to 25 years.”

The gravity of the addiction crisis is evident in National Geographic’s centerpiece story for September 2017: “The Science of Addiction.” The magazine reports: “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a record 33,091 overdose deaths in 2015 from opioids, including prescription painkillers and heroin — 16 percent more than the previous record, set just the year before. In response to the crisis, the first ever U.S. surgeon general’s report on addiction was released in November 2016. It concluded that 21 million Americans have a drug or alcohol addiction, making the disorder more common than cancer.”

In his homily, Fr. Dunn recalled that Ryan had a fun-loving and happy personality from childhood on. His teachers commented on what a joy he was to have in class. But in high school, he became hooked on drugs. “Ryan waged his own personal war with addiction for the better part of 10 years,” his brother Nick said in a reflection after the funeral Mass. “For the first four or five years the strain Ryan’s addiction put on my family, especially my parents, was immense. It was a very hard time for everyone involved. However, Ryan finally said enough was enough and checked himself into rehab and therapy. I was so proud of him for doing this, even though I never told him. He got clean and moved to Indianapolis. He was drug free for almost two years, but as anyone who has dealt with addiction, it’s an ongoing war — not just one battle.”

Ryan moved back home in an attempt to rebuild his life. But heroin addiction has a powerful hold on its victims, and Ryan relapsed. He sought help, again, choosing more intense therapy, Nick recalled. “Ryan was clean for the final time about four months. He had one bad day, made one bad choice … That’s all it took for Ryan to lose his war to addiction.”

The surgeon general’s report reaffirms that addiction “is a disease, not a moral failing,” National Geographic reported. “People with addiction often persist in using drugs to relieve the misery they feel when they stop.”

Ryan was found unconscious at a house in Iowa City. He had been without oxygen too long and died at University Hospitals in Iowa City, his mother said. The Drug Enforcement Agency got involved with the case and later arrested the dealer who was providing drugs to Ryan, she noted.

Despite his addiction, Ryan sought to bring light to the lives of others. He was a loving, doting uncle to Nick and Hannah’s son, Brooks, born Dec. 22, 2015. “Uncle Ryan loved being around Brooks. He totally lit up when Brooks was around,” Nick said. “Ryan chose to get clean for Brooks.” During a recent family reunion, Nick said Ryan “was the person he wanted to be and could’ve been. It was an awesome time for our family, and I will never forget that trip.”

Ryan’s cousin Tara Wiltrout noted that Ryan had a “unique ability to strike up a conversation with anyone and everyone, from any path in life, about any topic under the sun.” He took joy in seeing others succeed and in sharing excitement with those he loved most. Even during his darkest days he could smile and make others laugh, she said.

“We can all honor Ryan by continuing to tell the stories of how he supported and encouraged us, and how he brought so much joy to our lives,” Tara continued. “Let us go forth and be each other’s biggest fans, even during our darkest days.”

His parents reflected, “Now we say to Ryan in the words he used to say to us, ‘we love you to the moon and back.’”

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