Mayor Megan Barry, returning to her regular duties as Nashville's mayor Monday, opened up publicly about the death of her son, Max, from an apparent drug overdose and pivoted to a new role — a voice in the national opioid crisis.
At an emotional news conference from the desk of her office, Barry thanked Nashvillians for their outpouring of support, which she said provided a "counter-balance" to her grief after the death of her 22-year-old son on July 29.
She also addressed Max's past drug use, saying he had "occasional brushes" with drugs that prompted him last summer to enroll himself in a drug rehabilitation facility in Florida for a month.
"I don't want his death to define his life, but we have to have a frank conversation about how he died," said Barry, who last week temporarily stepped aside from work after Max's death. "We don't have the full autopsy yet, we don't have the final toxicology report, but the reality is that Max overdosed on drugs.
"I don't know exactly what the combination of drugs was, but I do know and we all know that that's what caused him to die."
Barry family chooses to discuss tragedy, son's drug use to inspire other parents
Max Barry died on the night of Saturday, July 29, in Littleton, Colo., a Denver suburb.
In her return to work, Barry began Monday at Buena Vista Elementary School in North Nashville, where she passed out backpacks and hugged children as they arrived for Metro's first day of school.
Barry and her husband, Bruce Barry, have chosen to be transparent after a tragedy that many mourn in privacy. Monday marked the first time the mayor has publicly discussed the matter.
At times, she teared up and slowed her words as she discussed Max, his sense of humor and adventure, and the timeline that preceded his death. Max's childhood friend Tommy Prine and his mother, Fiona, sat next to reporters to show their support for the mayor.
"Max will continue to inspire me and Bruce for the rest of our lives," she said. "Our hearts will always be sad and empty because we can never replace our child. But I know that with my faith, and I know that with my family and I know that with my friends, we will get through this.
"My hope is that it may inspire and encourage other parents out there to have frank conversations with their own children about this. If that saves one life, then what a blessing."
Mayor learned of death from a 3 a.m. knock at the door
After completing rehab, Max had returned to college at the University of Puget Sound, where he graduated earlier this summer. Barry said he had started to settle in Denver and had landed a job at a concrete construction company there.
"His intent was to get an apartment with two of his friends and stay out there for a while," Barry said. "And then make his way back to Nashville at some point.
"That's where Max was in his journey, and then last Saturday night, he was with some friends ... and together with those friends, he did take drugs and those drugs did kill him."
The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office has said that Max Barry was with two friends at a friend's home on the night of his death. They say his friends called 911 after finding him unresponsive and police pronounced him dead on the scene at around 9 p.m.
Barry said she was notified of the death around 3 a.m. the next morning at her front door by Metro Police Sgt. Rob Forrest, who leads the security detail for the mayor.
She said that she initially feared he was there to notify her that a police officer had been shot while on duty.
"As we walked into the kitchen, Sergeant Forrest had the unfortunate responsibility and duty to tell me that was not why he was there and he told me that Max had passed away," Barry recounted. "He had to repeat it several times because that was not what my brain could hear."
'It's a national epidemic,' mayor says of opioids
Max Barry graduated from high school at the University School of Nashville after he previously attended Martin Luther King Academic Magnet School.
An autopsy report, which would include toxicology findings and an official cause of death, has not been released by the Jefferson County Coroner's Office in Colorado. It might not be available for another month.
Though these details are unclear, Barry put Max's death in a larger tragic context of drug use, in particular the epidemic involving opioids. She said that Davidson County saw 245 overdoses last year involving opioids.
"This is not an unfamiliar nationwide or community conversation," Barry said. "It's a national epidemic. Again, I don't know the exact combination of what killed my son, but drugs did it."
In Metro, Barry said, first responders have already been equipped with Narcan, an emergency drug that is used for suspected opioid use. She said Narcan was administered to save Max.
"But it didn't save his life," Barry said. "And so as we continue to think about what we can be doing as a community, it's not that last moment. It's all those moments that come before the Narcan. That's meaning that we have to be more specific about this crisis."
Barry said Metro's 2017-18 budget includes funding for an opioid specialist in Nashville through the Metro Health Department. Metro is in the process of filling the position.
She also pointed to Opportunity Now, the mayor's program that seeks to find employment and internship opportunities for Nashville youth. She said the program was inspired by a conversation she had once with Max.
"I know that in this position of the mayor of Nashville, I have an opportunity to have a voice. As I'm nine days into this, we'll figure out what those next steps are. This is something that we already thinking about."
Barry said it's still unclear which other roles she might have in combating the opioid crisis.
"My goal after that conversation with Max was to open the door for all of our kids in Nashville. That's why we did that this summer with our Opportunity Now program."
Barry met with mother of son who died from gun violence
In an op-ed Tennessean column written by Barry, the mayor on Monday extended her thanks to Nashvillians for their support over the past week. Thousands attended a family visitation last week followed by a memorial service that was broadcast live.
"You’ve blanketed us with love and kindness. I want to do everything in my power — and with my power — to do the same for you," Barry wrote.
Barry said she is thankful for the work ahead in her role as mayor and that she is focused on the challenges.
"The work of our city goes on," she said. "Every day I will get up in this new normal and do what needs to be done."
The Barrys plan to visit Colorado later this month to lay to rest the ashes of Max, who was cremated Monday.
On Monday, Barry recounted a visit she made before Max's death to the home of the mother of Jaezoine Woods, a 15-year-old McGavock High School student who was gunned down and killed inside the J.C. Napier Homes public housing development last month.
"As a mother, I said to another mother that I don't know your pain but I'm here for you," Barry said.
"And then when Max died on (Saturday), I reached back out to her and told her, 'No, actually I do know your pain.' It was very sweet of her to send out her love and prayers to us, and I was very appreciative and grateful."
Reach Joey Garrison at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-259-8236 and on Twitter @joeygarrison.
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