Family struggles with the death from huffing, a popular substance abuse for kids
Dale Hunt spent part of his Sunday trying to revive a 1987 Pontiac Trans Am with a blown transmission. It was supposed to be a project he shared with his son, Aaron. It turned out to be a memorial.
Aaron Hunt, a Wonder Lake teenager with a magnetic personality and a charming smile, died Friday night, four days after he apparently chased a dangerous high by huffing propane fumes.
His death was a sign of the frightening but often little-known power of inhalants. They are one of the drugs most widely abused by teens, and while they are capable of killing with a single use, many parents aren’t aware of their popularity or danger, experts say.
“I speak to many parents whose kids have died from this, and while they talked to their kids about (other risky behavior), they never thought their kids would do something like this,” said Harvey Weiss, director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition.
Hunt’s parents were equally stunned. Now they want to spread the word that what might seem like an unthinkable menace is more common than many families might want to believe.
“I want parents and kids to know,” Dale Hunt said. “People don’t need to die this way.” Aaron Hunt was 18 and a senior at McHenry West High School. He loved video games and playing football with his friends. He wanted to follow a family tradition by becoming a mechanic and was planning to take automotive courses at McHenry County College. His parents said he had a playful personality, even when he got into trouble.
“You couldn’t be mad at him,” said his mother, Shawnda Hunt. “He’d peek around the corner and give you this crazy smile.”
But the trouble grew more serious in recent months. His parents said he was caught smoking marijuana and consequently enrolled in counseling and drug education classes. He had to undergo drug testing while he was in counseling, too, and he passed every time, his father said.
Over the last few weeks, though, Hunt’s parents noticed worrying changes. He was losing a lot of weight, and the light that normally flickered in his eyes had grown dim. “I asked him, ‘Are you eating?'” his mother recalled. “He just said, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’ Then a couple of days later, this happened.”
The University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey, which documents trends in teen drug abuse, has found that inhalants trail only alcohol and marijuana among the substances most commonly abused by younger teens. Eight percent of eighth-graders and 6 percent of high school sophomores say they’ve used inhalants in the last year.
Weiss, of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, said younger kids favor them because they are cheap and relatively easy to get. Some of the most common inhalants include spray paint, shoe polish and gasoline, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Their popularity fades as students get older — only 3 percent of high school seniors say they’ve used inhalants in the last year — but Weiss said they have one property prized by people who want to keep their substance abuse a secret.
“Inhalants are not detectable through most drug tests,” he said. Officials with Centegra Hospital-McHenry said that about 6 p.m. April 12, Hunt was in a car with friends when he went into a seizure. His parents said he had been huffing propane meant to fuel a lantern. He had the receipt for the canister in his pocket.
By the time paramedics arrived, Hunt’s heart had stopped, and his brain had gone without oxygen for as long as 10 minutes, hospital officials said.
He spent the next four days on life support as his friends flooded the hospital. But by Friday, Dale Hunt said, it was clear that the brain damage had been too severe. His ventilator was removed, and he died just before 11 that night.
By Sunday afternoon, a tribute page on Facebook had more than 1,100 fans, many of whom expressed shock and sorrow over his death. One of his friends told the Tribune that she dropped to the ground when she learned the cause.
Weiss said there are no reliable nationwide statistics for deaths caused by inhalants, though he gets as many as 150 calls a year from parents who have suffered such a loss.
He said many families aren’t aware of possible warning signals, which include weight loss, deteriorating memory, chemical smells on the breath and the appearance of chemical products in a child’s room or backpack. Even things as seemingly innocent as air freshener or computer cleaner could be signs of trouble, he said.
That’s the kind of information Dale Hunt wants people to know. He plans to tell his family’s story to schools and recovery groups, passing along a simple message and a heartbreaking plea.
“Kids are killing themselves with this stuff,” he said. “It has got to stop.”