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'Every parent’s nightmare': Mother shares story of heartbreak after losing son to fentanyl overdose

News19 investigates the deadly effects of the fentanyl epidemic is killing Midlands residents.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Three years ago, Mimi Quillman started an endowment fund at the University of South Carolina to help students struggling with addiction. It’s a topic her family knows all too well. 

“We got that call that is literally every parent’s nightmare, that you think will never happen to your family, to your child, that your child had passed away," Quillman said.

On January 20, 2017, Quillman says her son Travis decided to try heroin for the first time. Hours after he ingested the illicit drug, he was dead. Travis was only 32.

"The shock and disbelief, still to this day, I still think it's real," she said.

Travis’ mom spoke to News19 from her home in Philadelphia, located just a few miles from where Travis died. “I am actually sitting in his room right now,” she said.

She then went on to recount memories of her son.

“Our son Travis was a high school athlete ... football, silver medalist in high jump … he went on to the University of South Carolina,“ Quillman said. "He was very bright, funny, lit up the room when he walked in.”

A USC graduate, Quillman says Travis worked for a hedge fund after graduating. However, she says he was battling alcoholism. Travis was admitted to rehab in 2015 and then again 2016. Seven weeks after his most recent rehab stint in 2016, Travis was dead.

“He apparently purchased some heroin," Quillman said. "It was laced with fentanyl, 43%, and passed away."

RELATED: Two little-known drugs now adding to US overdose crisis 

Credit: Mimi Quillman

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According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. It can be up to 100 times stronger than morphine and was originally developed for pain management in the treatment of cancer patients. Over the years, some have begun mixing it with recreational drugs.

We wanted to find out about fentanyl overdoses here in the Midlands. Two local coroners agreed to speak with us. 

After five years in office, Sumter County Coroner Robbie Baker fears overdoses will be the reason his morgue remains full.

“I never dreamed I would see this many people succumb to the opioids," Baker said. "I’ve autopsied 19 bodies since January 1st this year, and five or six of those are suspected overdose deaths.”

News 19 asked Baker if he had ever seen anything of this magnitude, His response was no. 

"You’re getting cocaine laced with fentanyl, heroin laced with fentanyl, methamphetamines is being laced with fentanyl ... fentanyl is the common denominator," Baker said.

RELATED: SC coroner: Overdose deaths spiking because of laced pills

Meanwhile, Richland County Coroner Naida Rutherford says she is seeing similar cases in Richland County. 

“We had about 59 fentanyl deaths last year.," Rutherford said. "I want to be clear that number is not precise because we are still receiving toxicology." 

Rutherford, who became coroner just over a year ago, said, “I don’t think that I realized before I became the coroner how many cases there were. I am sitting here, and this is pages and pages. These are all cases that are drug-related.”

“Fentanyl is a game changer," Rutherford said, "because people don’t know it's in their heroin, in their cocaine, in the oxycodone that they are taking."

Statewide in 2015, there were 130 fentanyl overdoses across South Carolina. That number rose to 537 in 2019. 

According to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's most recent numbers, nine people in Orangeburg County died from a fentanyl overdose in 2019. In both Newberry and Fairfield Counties, one person died that same year, while 27 people died in Lexington County.

Dr. William Richardson with Prisma Health and the medical director for Palmetto Poison Center says the number of fentanyl calls they receive doubled from 2019 to 2020, with another 50% increase from 2020 to 2021.

“It is very potent, much more than morphine and heroin. So, while it is an excellent pain medicine, its potency, when mixed with other drugs or used in place of other drugs, can cause a lot of significant side effects or death," Richardson said.

“It’s not uncommon for me to see a case in an eight-hour shift,” said Richardson, who is administrating the antidote to the ones that make it to the ER.

“That’s been one of the tricky things with the fentanyl experience -- it can be variable. Sometimes that can require more Narcan than it would take in the past to reverse a heroin overdose.”

RELATED: 1,218 overdoses in SC so far this year; Orangeburg County officers trained on NARCAN

Richardson says fentanyl gives you a high, but on the come down, it starts to slow your breathing, sometimes to the point you stop breathing, with oxygen levels so low the risk of brain injury increases.

Michelle Nienhius is with the SC Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services (DAODAS). She says an addict’s path to recovery varies, and so does treatment.

“There are prescribed medical treatment from a doctor, from a physician. They have the ability, along with that medication, to have the talk therapy that is needed," Nienhius said.

For the Quillman family, they are still dealing with the reality of Travis’s death. They are hoping, however, that his name lives on through the Travis Scott Quillman Endowment Fund, which has raised $70,000 so far. 

Travis Scott Quillman began struggling with substance use disorder while he was earning a finance degree. He graduated...

Posted by Gamecock Recovery on Friday, January 28, 2022

According to USC, they will be awarding their first scholarship to students in need of recovery support this summer. 

“We know Travis would be really happy to know he was able to help someone else,” Quillman said.  

To donate to the Travis Scott Quillman Endowment Fund, click HERE.  

RELATED: South Carolina opioid overdose deaths increase over 40%