Eastern Iowa couple lost a son to overdose, but gained a mission

Rod and Debbie Courtney lost their son to a fentanyl overdose, five years later their Recovery Center is changing lives
KCRG-TV9's Jim Mertens tells us of the lives they may have already saved.
Published: Jan. 15, 2023 at 11:02 PM CST
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Each year, people nominate nine outstanding volunteers throughout Eastern Iowa with the “9 Who Care” Awards. One finalist will travel to Washington, D.C. to represent Eastern Iowa in a national competition for a Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award.

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - On November 1, 2016, Chad Courtney died.

“There’s nothing we could have done till Chad was ready,” said his father Rod, a retired probation officer.

After years of fighting drug abuse, Chad died from the effects of a fentanyl overdose.

He was 38, and the father of two young daughters. He basically died right before everyone’s eyes.

His mother Debbie remembers when a doctor entered a room where her son was being treated for an earlier drug reaction. The doctor asked a nurse, “where’s the junkie?”

“I just thought in my head, that’s my son,” Debbie said. “No, I’m his mom. That’s my son who you’re calling a junkie, you know, because I’ve watched his struggle.”

The struggle for Rod and Debbie Courtney is not over. Instead, it’s been channeled to help others when they need it most.

“Even our medical professionals need to have their awareness raised about substance use disorders, need to have their awareness raised around the stigma, and the impact it is on a family,” Rod said.

Rod and Debbie said they want to provide what they couldn’t find: a peer-to-peer resource for families of substance abusers. They’ve found it with CRUSH of Iowa and have expanded it with the organization’s new Recovery Community Center.

It’s where Chad’s spirit is very much alive.

“He was really healthy right there,” Debbie said, pointing to a picture of Chad that hangs in a conference room. “He was in recovery at that point.”

The picture was from about three years before he died. That attempt at recovery wasn’t his first, nor his last.

And when he died, the Courtneys’ long journey dealing with their son’s addictions wasn’t over either.

“I was angry with the people that sell drugs, I was angry with the system, I was angry with myself, you know, I was angry with with my son, but it was pretty short lived,” said Rod.

If you suffer from addictions, there is help available. You can contact the National Rehab Hotline by clicking here, the Heroin Hotline by clicking here, and you can find CRUSH of Iowa resources by clicking here.

The Courtneys wanted to turn those emotions into something they couldn’t find for themselves. The peer-led Recovery Community Center that opened in June is it. It’s staffed by 12 volunteers and two staff members, including Susan Bradford.

“I get to work with people that are struggling with substance abuse issues every single day, every single day,” Susan Bradford explained, the Center’s Peer Recovery Coach Coordinator. “And that’s what it’s about. It’s not about us, it’s about helping the next person that’s trying not to die.”

Susan has fought her own addictions, which for years left her estranged from her own sons, daughters, and grandchildren. CRUSH brought them all together, including her middle son Josh whose also now in recovery.

“They were able to forgive me, which was just phenomenal for me,” Susan said. “My daughter promised me then that, that this is a walk, we would walk together this time, shoulder to shoulder instead of them not talking to me.”

But that’s what CRUSH and the Recovery Community Center is all about. And the Courtneys are pouring their lives into it every day.,

“Just so many different little miracles that happen. And in the people themselves, they are giving and supportive of each other,” Debbie said.

More than 200 people go through the Center each month. That’s a community-wide impact they didn’t expect.

“It’s like, this is the beginning of something that is going to be big in the state of Iowa, because now we’re counting on people with lived experience,” Rod said.

Shared experiences like Susan’s. She says the Courtneys saved her and her family.

“Having them in my life has changed me in so many ways. It’s humbled me it’s shown me what they’ve walked through recovery in with such grace and dignity, and it’s an amazing example to people who are struggling.”

Just like the Courtneys struggled. Ask Rod.

“If I get angry, heroin wins. If I get angry enough, heroin beats me down, beats my family down, then it’s going to win again. And I was like, that’s not going to happen.”

They lost Chad, an Eagle Scout who got addicted as a teenager to drugs like heroin and fentanyl, but they’ve gained a mission. And it sometimes goes back to that picture of Chad in the conference room.

It’s a strong reminder to Debbie Courtney.

“Sometimes I walked through the door, and we have Chad’s picture there, you know. And, you know, I speak to him every day. But it’s hard. It’s hard. I lost my son to this. And it’s an ugly battle along the way.”

It’s a battle they say is worth the fight.