Sister’s quest to prevent drug deaths three years after beloved brother died

Three years this week, her teenage brother Alex Ryan died after taking a synthetic drug. CHRIS DUNNE talks to his sister Nicole about her quest to prevent more similar tragedies
Sister’s quest to prevent drug deaths three years after beloved brother died

SO CLOSE: Nicole Ryan with her brother Alex, who died three years ago today, aged 18, after taking a synthetic drug BELOW: Nicole produced an Emergency Response Card aimed at preventing a similar tragedy

WHEN Alex Ryan lost his life on January 23, three years ago, his sister’s life changed course forever.

Alex, aged 18, from Millstreet, paid the ultimate price for making one bad decision — taking a synthetic drug that proved fatal.

It was a tragedy that devastated his sister, Nicole.

“When Alex died, my dreams died with him. I lost everything,” she says.

But Nicole adds: “Grief drives me on.”

It is the fuel behind her ambition to help others who may find themselves in the same situation as Alex did that day in 2016.

“It would be easy to start over somewhere else,” admits Nicole. “I chose not to. I had to re-start on a different path, one I never thought I’d be on.”

“I planned my whole life around Alex. I was his minder and his protector. Suddenly he died.”

Instead, Nicole gave up her career at sea as a marine engineer, and made her ‘little big brother’s’ bedroom her office in Millstreet, planning her workshops to inform others about the dangers of substance misuse.

“It’s three years since Alex passed away. Time hasn’t dulled the loss that mum and I feel every day,” says Nicole.

“Sometimes it feels like yesterday; other days it seems like a lot longer. There will always be a huge void in our lives.”

Alex died after taking a potent hallucinogenic stimulant at a house party in Cork city.

Nicole finds comfort in talking about her beloved brother, a former student of Millstreet Community School.

“The more I talk about him; the more it helps me to help somebody else,” she says.

In the past three years, Nicole has visited more than 50 schools, colleges and youth clubs nationwide, sharing Alex’s story among more than 500 students, giving one-off workshops, and advising young people about the dangers that are out there.

“My belief is that it begins with education and the rest can follow,” she explains.

From this life-changing experience, ‘Alex’s Adventure’, the blended learning workshop, was born. Nicole and her team have delivered a brand new programme that aims to not only help the students learn more about the misuse of substances, but also up-skill the teachers and empower them to do what Nicole does.

“The programme is about helping people make better decisions, educate themselves, be aware of what they are taking and not be naïve in situations like my little brother, where you think you are taking something else,” says Nicole.

“Students learn more about substance misuse and the real-life effects that impacts that our choices related to drugs and alcohol can have.”

Working with schools and communities, the four-lesson workshop is designed to hit learning outcomes of the SPHE (Social Personal and Health Curriculum) modules, accompanied by the interactive and fun online learning both for the students and the teacher.

What kind of questions does Nicole get asked by pupils and young people?

“They want to know more,” she replies.

“They want to know about different types of drugs, not just synthetic drugs. About how to say ‘No’, and what are the consequences if you do say ‘No’. How do you fit in?

“The workshops grew from there. I knew that I had to do more. It evolved hugely.”

And she told them more.

“They see my life and the reality. I had to show them the awful effects of the aftermath, which affects not just the one person who lost their life; it hurts everybody. I don’t go in and say, ‘Don’t do this; don’t do that’.”

Nicole tells it like it is.

“There are many other ways to get life’s highs without getting into the drug scene,” she says.

“My message is; think twice about taking substances. Be very mindful and very careful. Alex’s tragedy happened overnight. It can happen to everybody.”

Nicole, during a summer brain-storming session with a few others, also came up with the Emergency Response Card, which, via the QR code, can be scanned giving the person step-by-step information on completing life-saving procedures, demonstrating the recovery position and chest compressions (see image on facing page).

“It is such an easy thing; I don’t know why it wasn’t invented years ago,” says Nicole.

“Students can carry the card in their wallet or purse.

“This spun out of the time my brother was in the house after collapsing and no-one knew what to do, before the paramedics arrived.” 

When Nicole arrived at CUH, driving the two-hour journey from Rosslare to Cork, she worried frantically if she would get to see her little brother.

“Alex looked so peaceful,” says Nicole, of the moment she set eyes on him. “Just like he was asleep.

“He was hooked up to a machine that helped him breathe.

“The hospital bed wasn’t long enough for his 6 foot seven inch frame, so his legs dangled out the bottom.

“He was warm to the touch. He didn’t move. He had suffered a cardiac arrest in the house and because of the lack of oxygen; he suffered irreversible brain damage.

"Alex looked perfect,” adds Nicole sadly.

“He didn’t know us or himself. If he survived, he would have had to be taken care of every day for the rest of his life at 18.” 

Alex not only changed the life of his sister and his family; he changed the lives of four people.

“He was a positive organ match for four people,” explains Nicole.

“Four people got four phone-calls telling them their lives were about to change. That day was their day. I was happy for them,” says Nicole. “But sad for me.” 

She now seizes every day to fullfil her burning ambition; helping to protect and mind others from misuse of drugs.

“I woke up one morning and I looked in the mirror,” says Nicole.

“I either let the loss of Alex take over my life or I take over it.

“Every day I would wake up and try to be in a different mindset.” 

Nicole made up her mind to honour a worthwhile legacy, as a result of her brother’s death.

“The workshops are my life’s work. The work means everything to me,” she says. “It is my life ambition.” What was Alex’s ambition?

“He always said he was going to be famous,” says Nicole, smiling.

“I asked him how was he going to become famous.

“He said; I don’t know. But one day; I will be famous.” 

The first pilot programme, including four lesson plans and an online platform for effective learning and delivery, takes place next month in Carrigtwohill Community College, followed by St Angela’s Secondary School, Cork.

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