It was raining the night Karen Munsell’s phone rang a little after 4 a.m.
Her son had been at a party and now he was sitting in his car, an inch to the left of death with no idea of where he was. He’d crashed into a cement wall. He was panicked. So was Munsell.
That was December 11, 2015. In the two years that have passed, Munsell has written letters, researched state law, spoken at city council and school board meetings, the state legislature, confronted every smoke shop owner in the city and collapsed sobbing into several pairs of arms in a quest to save her child and prevent another mother from getting that panicked, 4 a.m. phone call. Now, she waits to see if the Oregon Legislature will regulate the drug that nearly killed her son.
“He didn’t spend Mother’s Day with me," Munsell says. But her tone is no longer weighed down with the anguish and disappointment of those dark days when she no longer knew the boy standing in front of her, screaming. Now, her words escape a tightly guarded smile, holding cautious optimism because this is a day-by-day victory. “He went fishing. Do you know how long it’s been since he’s been fishing?” she asked.
The answer is years.
On December 11, Munsell sprang from bed with her husband, Graig. Their son was begging for them to come get him, but he didn’t know where he was. “All he kept saying was that he was in an accident and he thought he was in Veneta,” Munsell said. “He was house sitting for his brother and all he kept saying was that he had to get back to take care of his brother’s dog.” The line would hold their son’s desperate cries for help before going dead only to ring again pressing the pair on where they were and to please hurry. “We drove toward Veneta,” Munsell said. “I tried to get him to tell me what he saw around him, trying to figure out where he was. And then the last time he called me he said he heard water and all I could hear were semi trucks and I just kept asking him ‘Where are you?’”
After stopping at a convenience store to ask if the clerk had seen an accident, the couple stood outside. “I said, Graig we need an angel.”
Then her phone rang.
“He said, ‘Is this Karen?’ And I said ‘Yes,’ and he said ‘My name is Robert and I’ve found your son.’”
Robert was a retired paramedic and he stayed with their son until they arrived. The car was totaled but their son was still conscious and another car sat at the scene. “He must have been calling his friends when he was hanging up on us,” Munsell said.
Half a dozen young men exited the car and lit Graig’s temper. “His son has been in an accident, we’re on the side of the road and we know this isn’t like our son and we know what some of those boys have been into and Graig just loses it,” Munsell says. “He starts screaming at them, ‘Do you see this? Do you see what’s happened?’ But you have to understand. We know these boys. We coached these boys and fed these boys. This is a village and we raise our children together.”
That would be the first time their son would refuse them. The second would be at the hospital later that day. Over the next two years, it became common place.
We lost him
“Karen came in one day and said I have a program for you. You have to do this program.”
Krista Parent has served as the South Lane School District Superintendent for nearly 16 years and for some of those years she was Munsell’s boss. A decade before finding her son on the side of the road, Munsell drove the streets of Cottage Grove, picking up kids and bringing them to school, learning their names and watching them grow from grade to grade. She says Parent has been a blessing as the district’s top administrator but Munsell first met Parent, not in her official role, but as a mom. And while under Parent’s leadership, the high school graduation rate has skyrocketed, landing in the number two spot in 2016, as much as the district has improved in nearly every measurable standard she still continues to chase the ones the district couldn’t save.
“He was an excellent student, very academically-minded and a great athlete but he ended up not playing basketball, and basketball was his thing, toward the end of his high school career because he got involved in these other things. And we lost him for awhile,” she said.
It was only a few days after December 11 that Parent heard of the accident and not long after that, that Munsell was in her office urging her to watch a video on the Every 15 Minutes Project. It happens every year around prom when students are contemplating how far into the adult pool they’d like to wade. When fake ID sales rise and inhibitions fall and inevitably a parent is woken up by a 4 a.m. phone call.
“They identify kids beforehand and the grim reaper comes in, dresses the kid in black,” Parent explained. “For the rest of the day they don’t talk. Essentially they’re deemed dead. It’s very intense. They stage an accident and have a helicopter bring one of the kids out. They go as far as to notify the parents and the whole student body watches. It’s really impactful for the kids.”
It was Munsell’s effort that Parent credits for bringing Every 15 Minutes to South Lane. “It’s absolutely the worst thing that can happen as a superintendent,” Parent says of hearing the news of the accident and watching the subsequent spiral. “Especially in a small community because you know the kids through their K-12 education, you know their parents. My own kids interacted with him in this case. It’s probably the worst thing I have to experience, to have a kid like that and to lose him. Thank God he has the family he has. Not everyone has a Karen as a mom who says 'ok we’re going to go after this.' It was about saving him but it’s much more than that. It’s about saving all the kids like him in the future. It takes a village.”
Munsell’s son was headed for medical school. His parents had never had to use tough love or even stretch their imaginations for a punishment beyond having his phone taken away or a cut in TV time. But in the aftermath of the accident, Munsell was left with few answers concerning her boy’s behavior and so, she went looking.
She’d never seen a nitrous oxide canister before but now she had a sandwich bag full of them and no idea what they were used for.
“They’re basically, even though they’re used in catering to make whipped cream, it’s basically anesthetic gas.” Dr. Zane Horowitz is the medical director of Oregon Poison Control at OHSU. “It’s basically like inhaling a general anesthetic,” he said. “It makes the mind fuzzy, judgment is horrible, coordination is horrible. The difference is obviously, there’s no medical official around to monitor and make sure you’re getting enough oxygen.”
To use the product to get high, the canisters have to be opened with a special gadget known as a cracker. A balloon is used to capture the nitrous oxide and then inhaled in the same manner pranksters use helium balloons to change their voice.
“But nitrous oxide isn’t an oxygen carrying element,” Horowitz says. “So episodically, people will die from this.” The cause of death from a whippet is lack of oxygen to the brain. A seizure will occur. Or the heart simply stops. By the time individuals reach the emergency room, it’s often for a secondary side effect of the drug according to Dr. Danny Kranitz, an emergency room doctor for PeaceHealth.
“It’s a very short lived drug and so its profile as an anesthetic is fairly safe but when used inappropriately, you can trade oxygen for nitrous,” he said. “If we see it in the emergency room it’s because of a secondary injury caused by being under the influence.”
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 9.6 percent of 12 to 17 year olds had used an inhalant in 2015 and 13.10 percent of those ages 18 to 25 had used the product to get high. The average age of first use is 16 years old.
Munsell didn’t know her son’s heart could have stopped. She had no idea the crash was a secondary cause of the nitrous oxide when she stopped Don Williams in the street the day she found the canisters in her family's shop. “I saw him and I said pull over!” she said, gesturing wildly. Williams pulled over.
He’s served on every public board there is in Cottage Grove. At just over 80 he still takes part in Rotary, matters of the fire board and in his spare time he works to raise money to bring an antique carousel to Cottage Grove. He’s done everything short of serving as mayor but those who know him say it doesn’t matter who’s sworn in, Williams is chief of Cottage Grove.
Where do they get them?
“I first met Karen in the 90s,” he says. Williams' cowboy hat tips and tilts as he speaks and his nails are just long enough to tap against the table as he talks with his hands to better demonstrate his point.
“She told me what was happening and it, to me, is a shame. These kids can go in and just buy the stuff. So I told her, you have to talk to Tom.”
Tom Munroe was in his fourth term as mayor when he was approached by Munsell. He had never seen a whip-it before the day Munsell thrust a sandwich bag full of them in his face.
“I met her at a council meeting and she told me about her son. And I remember us all saying we wanted to do something about this, we’d never heard of it, but we thought we need to do something about this. We just didn’t know what we could do,” Munroe said. “I thought, we better talk to the police chief.” Munsell remembers him listening to her, looking at the bag of whip-it and asking, “Karen, where do they get them?”
The parking lot in front of the CG Market is narrow, enough room for half a dozen cars. The paint is peeling and the windows in need of a wash. It sits in the vertex of an angle formed by Cottage Grove High School just up the road and Lincoln Middle School across the railroad tracks and to the right. It offers the usual corner market soda cooler, chip rack and candy aisle but just to the right of the register a glass display case stretches for nearly a third of the length of the store itself. The woman behind the counter says she doesn’t know what nitrous oxide is. But inquire as to a “whip-it” and she nods and reaches into the glass display case full of brightly colored paraphernalia and pulls out a box full of pastel blue canisters. 99 cents each. A box of 24 for $20. On the box is a cartoon girl with pigtails.
Discount Smokes and Cigarettes is the only other store in the city that sells whip-its after Munsell spent weeks visiting each convenience and smoke shop, telling her son's story, begging them not to sell him the canisters.
The woman behind the counter is not the owner but she's been approached by Munsell. She says parents should be vigilant but distributors won't take the canisters back. She says she's told Munsell that when the store runs out of whip-its it won't order more. They have 50 cases in stock.
Looking for help
Cottage Grove Police Chief Scott Shepherd couldn’t help Munsell.
“It has to be easy for me to tell people no because it has to be factual,” he said. “But it’s difficult sometimes because any one in law enforcement, we want to help.”
But nitrous oxide is not illegal and the stores selling them are not breaking the law. Distributors can place the products in the store alongside crackers and store owners can claim ignorance while selling the whip its to middle-schoolers.
“Sometimes people just want to hear that, that there’s nothing we can do,” Shepherd said.
While the chief couldn’t do anything legally about the sales, Munsell said he helped to guide her in a direction. One day, she left her house, traveled into town and knocked on Shepherd’s office door. When he answered she held out her phone and hit play on a recording she’d made.
“It was my son yelling and screaming. I told him, “This is going on at my house right now Scott and Graig is there alone and I don’t know what to do. Help me,’” she said. Shepherd told her they needed to send law enforcement out to the house but she didn’t want to saddle her son with a record. Luckily, Tami Miles was on duty.
She had lived next door to the Munsells. As children, her daughter and Munsell’s son would share an elementary school kiss over the fence. “She said, ‘Would it help if I go? A pseudo mother figure might be able to get through to him,’” Munsell said. "She eventually got him to go back to the trailer."
Turning to faith
It wasn’t the first time Munsell sought help from law enforcement. Her son would ping-pong between her home and a trailer the family owned.
“He would come in and just scream at us but we had to use tough love and that was new for us,” Munsell said. “He would go in to take a shower and come out like a raging bull. That wasn’t my son.”
The couple would turn to South Lane Mental Health for help. “We went in and said we need to speak to someone and they took us right there,” Munsell said. South Lane serves anyone in the county who comes through the door asking for counseling and in the Munsell’s case, they provided tools for dealing with drug addiction and a wayward child. “They told us, the first thing to say and it took us months to say this to him, they told us to say, ‘This is what I think you need right now and if you’re not willing to do that, I can’t help you.’”
Cindy Weeldreyer is second only to Don Williams in volunteering hours. It’s not unusual to see her at every town function, her church hat atop her head and her heart on her sleeve. She’s served as Lane County Commissioner, KNND Radio host and is currently chairing Cottage Grove’s biggest tourism draw of the year, Bohemia Mining Days. “Don Williams is really one who, sort of, got the river flowing on this,” she said. “Karen ended up in his driveway one day and she was an emotional mess and Don didn’t know what to do so he called me.”
Weeldreyer drove to the Vintage Inn to meet Williams and Munsell. “I found myself sitting in the restaurant with her and she was pouring out her heart and I said, ‘Hey what about going to church with me?’ So she ended up at church.”
The Methodist church in Cottage Grove is a long, rectangular building with pews stretching into the back of the room. That’s where Weeldreyer sat.
“One of my dearest members was old and couldn’t walk well so I sat in the back with him, he was a widower and when he passed, you know how churches are, that was now my spot,” Weeldreyer said. “So I invited Karen to join my posse at the back of the church.”
Munsell began attending regularly and Weeldreyer says they would text back and forth, sometimes on a daily basis. She and Williams would direct her to the webbed network of do-gooders and public officials in the city that might have a lead on how to put a stop to the sale of whip its in Cottage Grove. They would also listen to her in her darkest hours and provide a shoulder to cry on.
“She said to me, Cindy said, ‘Karen, God has a special place for a mother’s prayer,’” Munsell remembers. “So I just kept praying.”
Missed Opportunities, new starts
18 years ago, on June 7, the Oregon Governor approved legislation that would limit the use of and define the illegal nature of inhalants. The list included acetone, butane, chloroform, nitrous oxide and a dozen others. Under the law, the assistant director for alcohol and drug abuse programs was to create educational material focusing on the problem of inhalants and their abuse by minors. Signs, posters, and drawings depicting the abuse and product were scheduled to be part of the standard drug warning system like smoking for pregnant women and drinking by minors.
“If the law had been enacted the way it was supposed to be, then maybe I would have known. In 1999 my son was a toddler. I would have known to warn against this. Maybe it would have been in a program like Every 15 Minutes,” Munsell said.
It was a point she made when she visited the Cottage Grove City Council again in 2016. She spoke about her son and she spoke about the stores that still sold the products in Cottage Grove and she spoke about how cheap they were. The council still couldn’t do anything to help but the city had instituted the Youth Advisory Board. It was made up of civic-minded high school students who sat on the council, heard issues with the council and voted with the council. The youth board representative there that night heard everything Munsell said and brought it back to the board.
House Bill 3030
“We took a trip to the capitol in Salem and we talked to Representative Cedric Hayden,” said Cottage Grove City Manager Richard Meyers.
“He, being a dentist, knew a lot about nitrous oxide and a few months later we get this legislative concept.”
House Bill 3030 would make it illegal to purchase nitrous oxide for anyone under the age of 18. Store owners and employees caught selling a whip-it without checking ID would be subject to a year in jail and a $6,250 fine.
“I got involved with HB 3030 because the Cottage Grove Youth Council reached out with concerns over nitrous whip-its use,” Hayden said.
“With my background in dentistry, I am familiar with the effects and hazards of nitrous use. I submitted the bill and the kids from the youth advisory took the lead and did a tremendous job coming to Salem and testifying before the House Health Care committee then the Senate Judiciary Committee where it passed both unanimously.”
Munsell remembers shaking the morning she testified before the committee in Salem.
“They thought it might be harder in the Senate so they asked me to speak,” she said. But it was complicated.
Her son had climbed up from rock bottom and he was embarrassed. She didn’t want to identify him or steal his story from him to broadcast in public but there were more kids in Cottage Grove, more kids at Cottage Grove High School and Lincoln Middle School. There were more kids in the village.
“Now, we wait,” she said. “They say it’s dead on arrival.” There’s a nervousness in her voice but it’s swept away with the recital of promises she’s collected from the community.
If the bill doesn’t become law at the state level, there’s hope for it at the county level with Lane County’s new commissioner Gary Williams. He went to school with her husband. He was mayor of Cottage Grove for over a decade.
Munsell still has breakfast with Williams almost every morning. She sees Weeldryer in church, stops by the police station to chat with Shepherd. She’s exchanged letters with Parent and has stood up at school board meetings to give her two cents on the agenda.
On Mother’s Day her son went fishing. He’s working again and hoping to return to school.
“He put on the waders we got him last Christmas. He had never put them on. He got a new boat because his old one was ruined since he wasn’t in a place to help us move a few years ago when everything was going on,” she said.
Munsell will continue to collect research in triplicate and hand it to whatever official she runs across. She’ll swallow her nerves to speak in front of councils and boards and make phone calls to community lobbyists who may be able to help. She has gone to every smoke shop and convenience store in the city begging store owners to pull the canisters. Several have complied. Two have not and she will continue to visit them, showing them a photo of her son who lost everything but his life within the span of three months and then wallowed and scratched his way back in the subsequent months and year that followed.
In the end, she wants to bring legislation to the federal level because she says, there’s no reason for a mother to get a phone call at 4 a.m. because their child was able to buy a whip-it and a balloon. She will continue her quest but it’s measured because for her, her son’s health and well-being comes first, a notion she balances with the good of the village.
“I got my son back. He’s coming back.”
She speaks of a man who walks the length of Main St. He passes the police station, the KNND radio station and the cafe where her son recently ate breakfast in public for the first time in months. He shouts and talks to himself, his hair long and ragged.
“He went to school with my son. He’s part of our village. We are better than this and we’re going to fix it.”