ENID, Okla. — Gail Box, who recently was appointed to the board of Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, remains motivated daily by the untimely death of her son, Austin Box, who died of a prescription pain medication overdose on May 19, 2011.
Box said Austin’s death was the culmination of a long series of sports-related injuries that eventually led to abusing prescription pain medication.
Austin suffered his first major injury when he was a sophomore at Enid High School, Box said — a back injury, with lingering pain. He later suffered a hyper-extended elbow, also while at Enid High School.
After graduating from Enid High in 2008, Austin went on to play football for the University of Oklahoma. The injuries continued, including a knee injury and elbow injury, both of which required surgery.
Box said Austin dealt with those early injuries “in a healthy way,” going to physical therapy and taking the advice of physicians and athletic trainers. But, when Austin ruptured a disc in his back at the beginning of the 2010 football season, Box said her son was given a prescription for pain medication. She believes that was the beginning of the end for Austin.
“We have always thought, mentally and physically, that’s probably when the abuse started,” Box said. “We don’t know when … but we do know he was abusing prescription pain medication in the end, and that’s what led to his death.”
Box said she’s been telling her son’s story for the last eight years in hopes of preventing other accidental deaths by prescription drug overdose.
“I began telling Austin’s story early on, because we just said we did not want another young man, or woman, or anyone to lose their lives to an accidental prescription drug overdose,” Box said, “and that’s been my mission.”
That mission led the Box family to found the Austin Box #12 Foundation in 2012, originally as a scholarship fund for Enid High students. The foundation has since grown into an advocacy group, pushing for education and prevention related to prescription drug abuse.
In 2013, Box started volunteering for Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS).
She served on the state’s prescription drug working group, and helped start and promote what would become OKImReady.org, a website focused on prescription drug abuse prevention.
In 2014, she helped promote and train law enforcement officers in Tulsa County in the carrying and use of naloxone, a drug that treats drug overdoses.
At the time, Box said Tulsa County ranked 18th among U.S. counties for prescription drug overdoses. She said she was “very proud” of how quickly Tulsa first responders embraced the idea of carrying and using naloxone.
“I’m really proud of Tulsa … and it has saved quite a few lives in Tulsa,” Box said. “The police department was very receptive there about carrying naloxone in their vehicles, and they were very excited and moved when they saved lives.”
She said the availability of naloxone soon dispelled some of the misconceptions about prescription drug overdose, and who it affects.
“We like to think the person abusing drugs is in the back of an alley,” Box said. “One of their first saves was a minister who took too much prescription pain medication and accidentally overdosed. It can be anyone who’s involved in opioid overdoses, whether it be by prescription or not.”
Box said her extensive volunteer efforts with ODMHSAS introduced her to the leadership at the agency, culminating in the governor naming her to the board. She said she hopes to use her position to make positive changes for Oklahoma, which still leads the nation in non-medical uses of prescription pain medicine.
“Our state unfortunately ranks very high in addiction and mental illness, and anything I can do to bring awareness, anything I can do to help make a difference, to improve those things in our state, that’s what I want to do,” Box said. “I am so happy to be named to this position. I look forward to working with ODMHSAS.”
Box said she wants other parents to share with their children a message she wishes she’d shared with Austin.
“I wish, if I could go back in time, I could have told Austin there’s no shame in asking for help,” Box said. “I really want that message to get out, and I hope one day we can erase the stigma so people will ask for help.”
While Box is eager to begin her work on the ODMHSAS board, she said the real change will come from people helping each other overcome addiction, mental illness and the stigma against seeking help. It’s a message that was left behind in a passage of Scripture Austin was wearing on a bracelet when he died. From Proverbs 27:17, it read “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
“That’s how we can make a difference in the world, is by following that simple verse,” Box said. “In the end, we’re all on the same team in this world. By making a difference in someone else’s life, you make a difference in your own, and the world.”