2022 | Schools

After Whitman student’s fentanyl overdose, family hopes awareness will prevent similar tragedy

Landen Hausman died in January

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Photos courtesy Marc Hausman

Marc and Hilary Hausman weren’t completely blindsided by their son’s death.

Landen, 16, had struggled for years with depression and anxiety and first turned to drugs and alcohol in eighth grade. He’d been to rehab and gotten professional help, and it seemed like he was doing better.

But in the early morning hours of Jan. 17, Marc found Landen dead on the bathroom floor. The night before, he had crushed up and snorted what he thought was a Percocet pill. He was dead within minutes, and an autopsy later revealed the pill was counterfeit, laced with fentanyl, a powerful opioid that is up to 100 times stronger than morphine.

When many would opt for privacy, the Hausmans were transparent, sharing openly that Landen died of a drug overdose, and discussing his many struggles with mental illness and substance abuse.

The day Landen died, Marc posted on Facebook announcing his death. Even then, he shared the cause.

In the days that followed, Marc shared even more. About 450 people gathered at a memorial service and listened to him talk about the last moments he had with Landen — a 10-minute check-in when Landen returned from a weekend away — and the chaotic, bloody scene when he found his son dead in the family’s bathroom.

The story is jarring. But there’s a purpose in sharing.

“When someone dies through a drug overdose or suicide, or something else society deems to be unseemly, the natural tendency is to kind of just hide it away, because it’s some sort of reflection on the person or on the family, and it’s something that’s perceived as a weakness,” Marc Hausman said in an interview. “But when Landen died, we decided to go the other way because the reality is the depression and alcohol and drug abuse is not unique to Landen, and I want people, especially young people, to understand that … more often than not, you make a poor choice and you’re going to get a second chance, but sometimes you don’t.”

Fentanyl overdoses in Maryland have spiked in recent years, aligning with national trends. In 2013, 58 fentanyl-related deaths were recorded in the state, according to the Maryland Department of Health. In 2020, the most recent data available, there were 2,342 fentanyl deaths.

Landen Hausman was a member of the Whitman High basketball team.

Last week, Montgomery County police announced they had arrested 23-year-old Mikiyas Maryie Kefalew and charged him with selling Landen the counterfeit Percocet pill laced with fentanyl in the days leading up to his death. Police said last week Kefalew could face more charges as the investigation continues.

If Kefalew is convicted, Marc said, he hopes he “uses the consequences of his decision to get himself on a better path and make better choices.”

“Regardless of how this plays out, this person is going to have another chance that Landen didn’t get,” he said. “Our hope is with this person, if it does prove to be true, that he realizes that he’s getting a second chance and will do right, and will make himself a more productive person who actually contributes to society in a positive way.”

Trust

For years, Landen struggled with anxiety, depression and substance abuse, Marc said. He had self injured before and spent time in rehab.

When he returned home, he went back to classes at Walt Whitman High, and his parents thought he was doing better. He had a tight-knit friend group, and he was on the basketball team, which provided some structure. Marc and Hilary did daily “wellness checks” with Landen, and weekly physical checks to make sure he was healthy.

When Landen got home from a ski trip the evening of Jan. 16, he checked in with Marc and talked for about 10 minutes. He seemed happy, Marc said, and, “We thought he was on a good path.”

But when Landen said, “goodnight,” he went into the bathroom, and while he was getting ready to take a shower, he crushed and snorted the pill. He was dead within minutes, Marc said.

Marc found him early the next morning, and his oldest son helped perform CPR while waiting for medics to arrive, but it was too late.

The family discovered later, while cleaning Landen’s room that he had still been using drugs and alcohol leading up to his death.

Marc said he feels “betrayed” but has accepted that the family was engaged and did what they could to help Landen. Ultimately, he just made a poor choice, Marc said.

“You do what you can and set parameters and goalposts, but, ultimately you can’t lock them down, and you have to trust them. So we trusted Landen,” Marc said. “He violated that trust, and the result led to his father finding him dead on his bathroom floor covered in blood.

“I don’t think he meant to die that night. He wasn’t like, ‘Man, I’m going to snort fentanyl and see what happens,’ but he chose to snort that Percocet and, ultimately, that choice led to his death.”

Community support

Landen died Jan. 17, the day before the Whitman basketball team was scheduled to play Watkins Mill High School.

Landen was close with his teammates, and they were devastated by his death. But they played the game that week.

Landen was announced as a starter for the junior varsity game, so Whitman only had four players on the court at tipoff. It was organized so Whitman won the tip, both teams kneeled and the gym took a moment of silence in Landen’s memory.

Whitman basketball head coach Chris Lun said he had known Landen since he was in third grade, and saw him grow up and mature. He said Landen was always excited to play, and was known for sinking “crazy, game-winning deep shots.”

“Maybe Landen’s legacy could be that the other high school students learn from this and don’t let it happen to them, and that’s all we can really hope for,” Lun said. “As the adults, we’re going to keep doing our best to educate them on how to make the right decisions.”

The Rockville High School basketball team attended Landen’s celebration of life (Marc’s eldest son, Hunter, is a junior there and plays on the team).

Whitman Principal Robby Dodd remembered Landen, a sophomore, as “bright and charismatic,” with a “great sense of humor.” He had a lot of academic potential and was starting to realize it, Dodd said.

He called Landen’s death a “gut punch” that sent shockwaves through the school community of more than 2,000 students.

But, he said, the family’s openness, paired with substance abuse awareness and prevention programming at the school, could save lives.

The week before spring break, about three months after Landen died, Whitman hosted several substance abuse prevention events as part of its first ever “IMPACT Week,” a reminder that “your choices can have a big impact,” Dodd said.

“It was informative for the community for all of us to understand the dangers of drug use, and what the cost can be, and it cost us Landen,” Dodd said in an interview on Friday. “I would never want to make the tragic loss of his life out to be some kind of positive thing, but everything I think we do as a Whitman community from here on out having to do with helping kids make good choices about their well being, the loss of Landen and how he died and the lessons we’ve had to learn from that is something that I think will have a positive impact.”

‘People who will never be the same’

When the Hausmans first shared that Landen died of a drug overdose, they weren’t sure what kind of reaction they’d get.

A video of Marc speaking at Landen’s celebration of life gained traction on social media, and a post he wrote on his LinkedIn page collected nearly 2,000 comments.

The feedback has been almost universally positive, Marc said, aside from some trying to politicize the death. But, more than that, people have said they’re grateful, and feel empowered to share their own stories, or to talk with their loved ones about difficult topics.

It makes the family feel like Landen’s life was meaningful, that maybe his death could prevent someone else’s.

“People always ask me: If I could go back and have that last conversation with Landen — I spoke to him 10 minutes before he died — what would I say? And the answer is very simple,” Marc said, getting emotional. “I would tell him he’s important, and if you make a poor decision, sometimes you don’t get a second chance. And there are people who will never be the same.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com