TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

September 24, 2013

Faces of drug abuse: Parents share heartbreaking stories


TIMES TRIBUNE (CORBIN, Ky.)

CORBIN — By RONNIE ELLIS / CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT To most, Michael Donta and Sarah Shay are statistics, two among thousands who die from prescription drug overdoses each year.

To their parents, they were life, their dreams and the future and their absence leaves holes in their hearts that won’t be healed short of their own deaths.

“When a parent loses a child, it’s a long and emotional process,” said Mike Donta, formerly an Ashland resident who is now an employee of the Kentucky Cabinet of Labor. “It starts the day your child passes away and it ends when we as parents we join them.”

His son, Michael Donta of Ashland, was only 24 when he gave up his long fight with drug addiction and hanged himself. He had been in and out of treatment programs with his dad’s help, but each time, the elder Donta explained, his son relapsed.

Sarah Shay of Morehead was only 19 when she died from taking prescription painkillers at a party. Her friends dropped her off at emergency room — but it was too late. She, too, had seemed to have fought her way out of addiction after seeing her father die two years earlier. Her mother, Dr. Karen Shay, a dentist, had arranged counseling for Sarah and she’d enrolled at Morehead State University. She was an aspiring artist.

But one night in January 2006, she again took prescription drugs— and this time she didn’t wake up.

Her mother now travels the state — along with Mike Donta — talking to other school students about the dangers of prescription drug abuse. She gets nervous in front of a crowd, “but the passion in my heart for this problem is what keeps me going from one school to the next.”

She and Donta have spoken to more than 25,000 school kids since losing their children. They talk to them of their children — and the loss.

“She was truly a wonderful young lady,” Karen Shay says of her daughter. “I can tell you I was full of hurt that most people should never — and I pray that they never do have to feel that kind of hurt — but in doing and talking to the students, it gives me the courage to go to the next one and speak.

“It has turned my hurtful experience into one of wisdom and I am grateful for that opportunity,” Shay said.

Both were on hand Monday as Kentucky Attorney General announced two $1,500 scholarships — one for a female high school senior, one for a male senior — named in honor of Sarah Shay and Michael Donta, an idea conceived by Karen Shay.

The two scholarships are funded through private contributions from the Donta and Shay families and a gift from the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators. They are available to any Kentucky high school senior whose life has been impacted by prescription drug abuse, either their own or that of someone in their family.

Scholarship applications and eligibility requirements are listed on the website (www.ag.ky.gov/rxabuse <http://www.ag.ky.gov/rxabuse> ). Applications must be completed and submitted by Jan. 15, 2014 and winners will be announced by Conway’s office in May 2014.

Conway said Kentucky is making progress in the battle against prescription pain killer addiction, noting the passage of a “Pill Mill Bill” by the legislature has helped shut down half of the state’s pain management clinics and his office’s crackdown on the problem.

“For the first time, Kentucky is below the national average for prescription pain killer abuse,” Conway said.

He and the others are investigating how they might legally establish a foundation to continue the scholarships in future years.

Donta said he and Shay want to share their stories as “a light of hope to others” and they are honored to see their children’s memories carried on through the scholarships.

“Karen and I did not choose to have our children be the faces of drug abuse,” Donta said. “But we’ve been able to share our tragedies to encourage others to be aware of potential consequences.

“I laid my son to rest but not his memory,” Donta said. “There’s a difference.”

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort <http://www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort> .