Drugs, death and a broken-hearted dad

A Woodland father tells teens at a Vancouver substance abuse treatment center about his son's long struggle with addiction

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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photoFrank Hoetker expresses his anger and frustration as he tells teenage boys at Daybreak Youth Services the story of his son’s drug addiction and death. After his son died, Hoetker began speaking at schools and treatment facilities to try and prevent drug-related deaths.

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photoTeenage boys at Daybreak Youth Services inpatient treatment center in Vancouver listen to Hoetker talk about his son’s drug overdose death.

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photoFrank Hoetker holds a letter written by his son, Darby, who died from a drug overdose. Darby’s struggle with drug addiction is documented in the letters he wrote. Hoetker uses the letters when giving presentations at schools and treatment facilities.

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Frank Hoetker looked out at the dozen teen boys sitting before him.

They sat in chairs leaned against the back wall of the room, arms folded across their chests. One fidgeted with a music player. A couple of others used colored pencils to sketch on paper.

Hoetker greeted the boys — all patients at Daybreak Youth Services, a Vancouver inpatient substance abuse treatment center — and explained the reason for his visit. Hoetker wanted to tell them a story. But not just any story — his son Darby’s story.

Hoetker revealed a large picture frame with a the photo of a teenage Darby. The blond-haired teen is sitting on concrete steps and smiling.

Then Hoetker walked over to a small wooden box sitting on the table. As tears welled in his eyes, Hoetker lifted open the lid, exposing a clear plastic bag filled with ashes.

“Seven pounds,” he said. “That’s all I have left of my dear little son, Darby. Seven pounds of ashes.”

“I am forever heartbroken, devastated and still angry,” he added.

At that, some of the boys straightened up. Others leaned closer, their eyes locked on Hoetker.

Hoetker pulled out a piece of paper and read from a note Darby had written.

This morning the feeling I came up with was fear. ... then I took a glance at my scarred arms and anger and insanity started building up inside me. It made me remember sitting in a hotel with totally blurred vision cause I had shot so much coke. And having this jerk trying to hit me, taking the needle in and out and in and out of my arm. My arms bleeding and me not tripping on the blood, the sickness. Just wanting one thing, that rush.

Hoetker looked up at the teen boys.

“This is Darby’s story,” he said.

Darby was born Sept. 7, 1970, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area.

When he was 8 years old, Darby’s parents divorced. Darby was all smiles on the outside. But on the inside, he was hurting.

At age 13, Darby began acting out. His grades began to slip. He started hanging out with the wrong crowd. And he began experimenting with drugs.

For the next 15 years, Darby was on the roller coaster of drug addiction.

At age 17, Darby nearly died. Hoetker came home to find his son ashen and barely breathing. Darby’s eyes were rolled back and froth was coming out of his mouth. A syringe lay on the floor nearby.

After three days in an intensive care unit, Darby went to an inpatient treatment center. Twelve weeks later, he graduated from the center and went back to high school.

Darby earned his diploma and gave his commencement speech on June 15, 1989. He enrolled at a junior college and got a job.

Months later, Darby was back in rehab. He moved to New York City when he graduated from the treatment center 15 months later.

Two weeks later, Hoetker got a call from the New York Police Department. Police had found Darby on a street corner. He had overdosed.

Darby recovered and moved back to San Francisco. He continued to use any and every drug he could get his hands on.

In November 1998, Hoetker got the call he had feared for 15 years. Darby had overdosed and was on life support.

Hoetker walked into the hospital room and found his son lying on his back, tubes coming out of his nose and mouth. Darby was stiff and clammy. He had a temperature of 108. A tube attached to his chest was spewing black bile.

“At age 28, he was pronounced dead at 12:49 p.m. on Nov. 10,” Hoetker said.

Hoetker paused and looked at the young boys at Daybreak.

The teens were the latest audience for the Woodland man, who travels to schools and treatment facilities in the area to share Darby’s story, but he’s seen boys like them before.

Darby was like each and every one of them, Hoetker told the boys, but they don’t need to meet Darby’s fate.

“Drug addiction ruins families. It ruins communities. It ruins lives. It will ruin your lives,” Hoetker said.

Even Darby knew his addiction would cost him his life, Hoetker said as he pulled out an undated letter from Darby.

How the hell can someone do this to themselves. It’s hard to look at my pain, but if I don’t it’s gonna kill me.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.