Dr Omar Abubaker was shocked when his 20-year-old son Adam came to him and admitted he had a drug problem in November 2013.
He had no idea that the painkillers his son took following a shoulder surgery the previous summer had led to a heroin addiction.
Adam immediately went to rehab after telling his father about his addiction, but a heroin relapse in the fall of 2014 led to a fatal overdose one month after starting college so that he could become a medical technician.
Dr Abubaker’s grief led him on a quest to learn more about opioids, the drugs that he prescribed routinely as an oral surgeon – and that killed his youngest son.
In an interview with DailyMail.com, Dr Abubaker explained that he now makes it his mission to warn his patients of the dangers of prescription opioids, using his heartbreaking firsthand experience as an example.
Adam Abubaker (left) died of a heroin overdose in October of 2014. He is pictured here with his father Dr Omar Abubaker shortly before his death
All three of Dr Abubaker’s children came to him at one time to talk about Adam’s drug abuse problem in their hometown of Richmond, Virginia.
Adam came with his older brother Joseph, 29, and his sister Sarah, 31, to confess to his father that he needed help.
The confession floored Dr Abubaker. He said: ‘I was clueless – it was a total shock to me. It was not obvious. He was functional.’
He does not know exactly how his son’s addiction began. ‘I can’t tell you the details because he had not shared that with me when he was going through it,’ Dr Abubaker said.
But, in retrospect, Dr Abubaker has been able to piece together what might have happened leading up to his son’s death. He suspects that Adam’s addiction started after he was prescribed painkillers following a shoulder surgery.
‘I vividly remember I didn’t like the idea he was prescribed an excessive amount,’ he explained. He also remembers finding a bottle of tramadol in his son’s belongings.
Still, he did not know his son, who grew up in an affluent family, had a life-threatening disease. ‘I had no deep knowledge of the opioid epidemic because it had not affected me directly.’
Even though they suspected Adam was abusing prescription opioids, Sarah and Joseph did not know about the gravity of the situation until they learned their little brother was using heroin.
‘When his brother and sister realized it was heroin, they thought, “This is a serious issue”,’ Dr Abubaker said.
But Adam’s family wasted no time in helping him get clean, and he moved into a local rehabilitation facility called the McShin Foundation in December of 2013.
The treatment center helped Adam, and he stayed clean for the better half of 2014. That fall he enrolled in a community college in his hometown, and he was excited to become a medical technician.
A month into his studies, though, on September 27, Adam relapsed and overdosed on heroin at an acquaintance’s house.
The people he was with at the time called 911, and Dr Abubaker found out his son was in the emergency room at about 8pm.
The overdose left him brain dead, and he was in the intensive care unit for four days.
On October 1, Dr Abubaker’s world fell apart when he had to make the decision to take his 21-year-old son off life support.
Adam’s organs were harvested, and he was pronounced dead. ‘There was a period of grief and paralysis,’ Dr Abubaker remembered.
This period of time after Adam’s death left Dr Abubaker with many questions about the disease that took his son’s life – one that began with a prescription much like the ones Dr Abubaker wrote all the time.
Dr Abubaker, who routinely removes wisdom teeth and performs other oral surgeries where he works at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that prior to his son’s death he thought nothing of prescribing painkillers.
But during his period of grief his wife pointed out an online addiction studies course available at the school Dr Abubaker worked.
The program lasted for one year and was provided in conjunction with universities in England and Australia, and it opened up Dr Abubaker’s eyes to the severity of America’s opioid epidemic. ‘Once I learned about that, I became more aware,’ he said.
Adam was a volunteer firefighter, and he was studying to become a medical technician at the time of his death
The program was extremely difficult because it was a constant reminder of his son’s death. ‘It was so hard,’ Dr Abubaker said, crying. ‘I felt like I was dissecting his brain. I felt like I was looking into his brain.’
But the course redirected Dr Abubaker’s life. ‘That program triggered me to pursue an active role in teaching,’ he said. He has since dedicated his life to explaining the dangers of prescription opioids to prospective dentists and his patients.
Sometimes, he tells his students about these dangers via his own family’s story.
Additionally, he has changed his ways as a doctor, and he now prescribes significantly less opioids than he did before Adam’s death.
While Dr Abubaker used to write prescriptions for 20 to 30 pills, he now routinely writes them for only six to eight tablets.
He said the excessive prescriptions that he wrote in the past still bother him. ‘I wake up everyday, and I hope and pray no teenager got addicted to those tablets.’
Dr Abubaker (right) has made it his mission to educate future surgeons about the dangers of prescribing opioids since his son Adam (left) died
Dr Abubaker is careful to warn his patients about what they are doing when they first take an opioid now. He explains that addiction is not picky about who it consumes. ‘I tell them, “My son has died”,’ Dr Abubaker said.
But he made clear that he, and others in his field, did not mean to harm individuals – and communities – by over-prescribing painkillers before they knew about the dangers of doing so.
‘I love my patients. We were trained that we’ve got to treat pain,’ Dr Abubaker said, adding that his generation of doctors was fed false information stating that opioids were not highly-addictive.
At the end of the day, Dr Abubaker wants to make known the fact that addiction is a disease and that communities should pull together to help people affected by it.
‘The opioid epidemic is a progression of substance use disorder. Society is not compassionate for it. We made it sound like it’s [the addict’s] problem.’
Now, in the wake of Adam’s death, he does all he can as a physician and teacher, to lessen the damage done by America’s opioid crisis.
‘We ignored addiction as a disease, and it came and bit us.’