In 2004, the Catholic High School football players lined up on the field for senior night, each holding a flower for their mother, who walked on the field to them.
“They announced me and Danny comes running off the field to me, picks me up, hugs me and that was Danny,” said Kim Rankin of their only son, with Dan Rankin adding, “You guys walked back. The other boys were too embarrassed. The whole stadium up there and there was nobody up there but his mom.”
“He loved us,” Kim said.
Danny Rankin’s joy came from making others smile, whether it meant leaving a funny voicemail or wrapping someone in a full-bodied bear hug. But the successful high school and college linebacker and Catholic High School graduate was more than just a jovial giant at 6’2 and 230 pounds.
He was a member of Mensa and Intertel, organizations that only accept people with an IQ in the 98th and 99th percentiles. Danny lived loud, but he’d quietly give his time and money to those in need whether it was buying all the Girl Scout cookies or counseling his sister’s friend who suffered from an eating disorder, calling her weekly.
“Danny would come home and tell us, ‘Oh I ate 17 burritos today.’ Oh great,” his mother said with exasperated sarcasm. “But he never told us about all these things he was doing behind the scenes for people who were struggling.”
Rankin had it all — he was intelligent, compassionate, hilarious, handsome, devoted to living out his Catholic faith, the ultimate big brother and had a family and friend support system that most dream about.
But in all the ways he was unique, Rankin has the same story as more than 702,000 people in the United States who have died from a drug overdose from 1999 to 2017 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017, it was the leading cause of injury-related death in the country, at more than 70,000 deaths. Of those, the CDC stated that 68 percent involved a prescription or illicit opioid.
On Sept. 19, 2012, Rankin, 27, was found unresponsive. After 10 days at CHI St. Vincent in Little Rock in the Neurosurgery Intensive Care Unit, he died Sept. 29. The accidental overdose stemmed from Xanax, an addictive benzodiazepine prescribed to treat anxiety disorders, and Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pain reliever. In 28 days, his doctor, despite Rankin’s history with addiction, prescribed him pills that should have lasted six months.
Dan and Kim Rankin are advocates, speaking out for all families with those that struggle with drug addiction.
“We were fighting this behind closed doors because we were not that family,” Kim Rankin said. “… He didn’t ask for this, we didn’t ask for this and we are the face of addiction.”
Opioids are “natural, synthetic or semi-synthetic chemicals that interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain, and reduce the intensity of pain signals and feelings of pain,” according to the CDC. The class of drug includes illegal drugs like heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and prescribed medications including oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine.
Anyone who takes a prescribed opioid can become addicted, as one in four patients who were on opioids long-term struggled with addiction, the CDC stated.
Drs. George and Sherry Simon, married clinical psychologists in Little Rock for more than 30 years, said patients who experience addiction build up a tolerance that requires more of the substance.
“For example, some of the opioids, the prescribed narcotics that are such a problem today, they basically flood the pleasure centers and they also block the ability to feel pain. And there are real changes in the brain when that occurs. It feels really, really good for a minute. But then you feel really, really awful when you don’t have the substance in your system,” George Simon said.
Sherry Simon points to the 1990s, when research that emerged on opioids was considered a breakthrough for pain treatment.
“So they told them it was OK to use it so physicians started prescribing all of these things. They didn’t realize until later until it was too late, that people were getting hooked on it,” she said.
Benzodiazepines or “benzos” are central nervous system depressants that include Valium, Ativan and Xanax. While they produce a calming effect, this drug class is also highly addictive. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 1996 and 2013, there was a 67 percent increase in adults who filled a benzo prescription, 8.1 million to 13.5 million. In 2015, 23 percent of people who died from an opioid overdose also had benzos in their system.
According to Arkansas Take Back, a program that educates and provides safe disposal of medications, from 2017-2019, Arkansas was No. 2 in the nation for over-prescribing opioids per capita, said Arkansas State Police Drug Director Kirk Lane. In 2018, according to data from the Arkansas Prescription Drug Monitoring program, there were 102.1 prescriptions per 100 people in the state, with the national average at 58.7.
“We know that opioids are not meant for long-term prescribing issues, long-term medical issues, they’re more suited for acute pain issues,” Lane said, but the “pain threshold,” when medical professionals ask patients to identify their pain level became the “fifth vital sign. We opened up the door to use opioids as a solvent for that, knowing from history that opioids were not meant for long-term prescribing. It all comes down to money and influence.”
The organization has partnered with various hospitals, state and rural health departments to educate medical professionals about the crisis. In July, Lane gave his “Arkansas Opidemic” presentation to the medical staff at CHI St. Vincent in Little Rock, highlighting the role they play.
“It’s as much of a society problem as it is a doctor problem I think because over 60 percent of prescription drugs abused come from our homes,” he said, which is why the organization hosts drug take-back days, to safely dispose of prescription medications.
“Generally what we’re seeing is more middle class and upper class because prescription drugs are accepted. They were prescribed by a doctor so they’re OK,” he said is the dangerous mentality.
A cradle Catholic who grew up at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock (Marche), Danny Rankin attended school at the parish and went on to Catholic High. The stress of football recruiting his senior year caused him to be angry and inconsolable, his father Dan Rankin said. He was misdiagnosed and over-medicated for years, but had bipolar disorder.
His recruitment to University of Nevada Las Vegas was the step off the cliff into addiction.
“For somebody who was always so positive and happy he hit this low, depression. So he’s being treated for depression. And he got on such a med-merry-go-round out in college,” his mother said, who worked as a psychiatric nurse.
After graduating with a psychology degree in 2008, he attended an in-patient rehab in Atlanta for about a month.
“He got off all the junk and all the sudden we had our son back,” Kim Rankin said.
He began working again with autistic children. He was sober for years, only taking medications to manage his bipolar disorder.
Until he couldn’t sleep.
A North Little Rock doctor, despite Rankin telling him multiple times he had struggled with prescription drug addiction according to medical records, gave him Ambien, an addictive sedative-hypnotic drug.
Then came Xanax. According to American Addiction Centers, americanaddictioncenters.org, Xanax changes the brain quickly and is one of the most addictive benzodiazepines.
While studying for his psychology certification at his parent’s home, he was found unconscious on the floor and never woke up.
Danny’s former doctor, who is still practicing, was deemed “reckless” by the Arkansas Medical Board in the amount of medications prescribed to Rankin, though not negligent in his death.
“Today even in death, we’ve done every possible thing we can do to right a really terrible wrong and also to bring about a greater good,” Dan Rankin said.
The Rankins have taken on Danny’s way of living loudly to help others. On Aug. 30, Kim Rankin spoke at the State Capitol for Overdose Awareness Day.
“Danny would say, ‘These are prescriptions. These are all prescriptions I’ve been given.’ And he used to say, ‘I really feel bad for the alcoholics because they can go anywhere, it’s everywhere. At least I have to go through the doctor,’” Kim Rankin said, adding, “I think there’s been huge strides in terms of awareness and pulling back just the liberal nature of prescribing” since her son’s death eight years ago.
Dan Rankin said, “There are a lot of people facing this. Number one, this isn’t like breaking a leg, it’s not cancer, there’s no roadmap,” he said.
Advice the family received from fellow parishioner Suzanne Dobbins changed their perspective — they were encouraged to talk about it so people would stop talking about them and start praying for them.
“We had such a moral flag hung on this. ‘You weren’t raised this way.’ I remember vividly screaming at him, ‘If you loved me, you would not.’ There is nobody that loved his parents more than Danny did. But that disease is so powerful,” Kim Rankin said.
The Rankins suggest for couples facing addiction of a child to remain a united front, communicate and be open about it as a family, rather than sheltering other children from the issues.
“Get up every morning and pray together … when you are facing a bully like this and that’s what addiction is, and a killer, you have got to protect that relationship especially if you have other kids too,” he said.
It can be isolating, especially when other families are discussing diseases out in the open and getting support, but families facing addiction should not try to handle it all on their own, Kim Rankin said.
In death, as he did in life, Danny Rankin is still giving. His organ and tissue donations saved or bettered the lives of 75 people in 25 states, including his heart to a man named Roger in Houston. The family has remained close with the fellow Catholic, meeting for holidays and family vacations.
The Rankins started Danny’s Gift, a fund through CHI St. Vincent in Little Rock that provides families financial support for food and a place to stay while caring for loved ones in the Neurosurgery Intensive Care Unit. The Rankins have raised close to $20,000.
“Even if the worst possible thing happens, which it did, you can find joy again. It takes time,” Kim Rankin said. “There’s two ways it can go. We’ve been walking a very dark path for many, many years and we decided to fight for it and we have found joy again and we laugh again and we talk about Danny as if he were sitting in the room with us. He’s so present in our life. If the worst happens, God’s gotcha.”
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