GERMANTOWN, TN (WMC) - It's the high school secret too often revealed too late: suburban teens hooked on heroin. It's a growing problem in neighborhoods all over the Mid-South. And if you think it will never happen to your teen, think again.
"He was born on Valentine's Day, so he was our valentine boy," Paul Nahmais said about his son, Gabe, who was born and raised in Germantown, and graduated from Houston High School.
Paul and his wife, Wendy, say Gabe may have been too smart for his own good.
"Gabe was looking for an identity and, unfortunately, it ended up where his identity became that he was in the know and knew about drugs like an expert," Paul said.
Gabe first tried marijuana in middle school, Paul explained. And by tenth grade, a friend introduced him to heroin for the first time.
"After a while, it just consumes you," Paul said. "I don't think anyone ever woke up one day and said 'I think I want to be a drug addict.'"
Seven years of addiction and rehab ended in September 2014 when Gabe, who was several months sober at the time, ingested Speedball, a drug that combines heroin and cocaine. After take the drug, Gabe made his way home and died of an overdose in his childhood bedroom. He was 25 years old.
"It's the worst thing that's ever happened to me, to Wendy and I, it's devastating," Paul said.
But what happened to Gabe Nahmais is becoming all too common in Shelby County. Heroin overdoses leading to death are on the rise.
"It's a very potent, deadly batch that is out on the streets and we're seeing, obviously, the tragic results of that," said Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich.
According to Shelby County Medical Examiner's Office, last year, 59 people died of heroin overdoses in Shelby County. That's five times the number reported in 2010.
In 2010, there were 12 deaths attributed to heroin overdoses. In 2011, that number went down to 10 deaths. But by 2012, the death toll had more than tripled to 35 deaths. And it only continued to rise from there. Forty-five people died of heroin overdoses in 2013. By 2014, the death toll had risen five times the deaths reported in 2010, to 59.
"This is one that I think takes the breath out of parents when you start telling them how readily available heroin is on the streets today," Weirich said.
"They will deliver out here [to Germantown], almost like a restaurant," Paul added.
Paul Nahmais says four 20-somethings got hooked on heroin, as teens, in his Germantown neighborhood.
The friend who introduced Gabe to the drug died two months after he did. The two hadn't spoken in years. Paul says it was a coincidence, but it illustrates how much of a problem heroin addiction is in the Mid South and how it can impact families who least expect it.
"It's something you know can happen, but you really always hope that it doesn't happen. And pray that it doesn't and pretend that it doesn't, but sometimes it does," Paul said.
Dr. Radwan Khuri, a medical director of the Total Recovery Program at Lakeside Hospital, says heroin use is on the rise because it is cheaper than most other drugs.
"It used to be that prescription pain killers were really an epidemic for 10 to 15 years and then the government put some effort to control that and restrict use. And suddenly there was a market for heroin," Dr. Khuri said.
But Dr. Khuri says the lasting impact of heroin is worse. It impacts the brain's ability to feel happy, giving the user a sense of no pain and well-being that has such a big rush they crash after and can't function without the drug.
"It certainly creates a chemical imbalance. There are a lot of brainwave studies that have shown that the chemical imbalance of heroin addiction might go for a year or two even if you're clean and sober," said Dr. Khuri. "It's a powerful, lasting addiction that requires on going recovery work."
That addiction is backed up by Memphis Police Department's arrest numbers. In the last two years, MPD recorded 275 known heroin-related arrests but say the number could be higher. Almost 80 percent of those arrested were people in their 20s and 30s, the same age as Gabe Nahmais.
As far as charging the person who sold Gabe the deadly drug, Weirich says it's hard to trace the drug back to the seller and it's incredibly hard to prove it in a court of law.
In fact, in her time at the DA's office, Weirich has only prosecuted one person for selling a drug that resulted in an overdose death. Tennessee law allows the DA to charge the seller with second-degree murder.
"Tracking it back to whoever it was that supplied that heroin to them is the problem and getting the circle of friends to talk and cooperate is the problem," Weirich explained.
Weirich says she is pushing for a "good Samaritan" law that would make it possible for friends to speak up and call 911 if they are with someone who overdoses. The law would protect them from facing prosecution as a result of the call and instead, focus on saving the life of the person who overdosed.
It's all the more reason why Gabe's parents want to share their story and help get conversations started between parents and their kids.
"I don't want him to ever be forgotten and he won't be," said Paul Nahmais. "I love him and I miss him like crazy."
Both Dr. Khuri and District Attorney Amy Weirich say heroin addictions can start in your medicine cabinet at home. If pain killers and prescription medication are easily accessed by everyone in your house, then you are putting your children and their friends at risk.
Talk to your kids before experimentation becomes deadly. And get rid of expired or unneeded prescriptions; lock up the rest.
Shelby County Sheriff's Office partnered with Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to place a permanent collection bin at 11670 Memphis-Arlington Road. This is a place you can properly dispose of unwanted or unneeded medications. It's one of 40 bins in the state, but the first in Shelby County.
The bin not only offers a safe way to dispose of unwanted medication, but it also promotes environmental protection. Experts say simply flushing your prescriptions down the toilet or the sink is bad for the environment.
For more information about properly disposing prescription drugs, click here.