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ROBERT PRICE: A mother’s prayer: Easter awakening from relentless curse of fentanyl

When Ruby Jenkins was awakened by the whining, she assumed it was time. Henny was due to deliver her litter of pups any day, and, judging by the maternal whimpering coming from the backyard, this was apparently the day. Or, rather, the night.

Jenkins scooted out of bed and followed the sound of Hanny’s soft cries, expecting to find the family German Shepherd in her dog house, in the throes of labor.

Instead Jenkins found the dog, still as pregnant as ever, looking through a window at 18-year-old Gabriella, unconscious on the floor of her bedroom. Again.

Gabriella had overdosed on fentanyl and she might have been moments from death. Jenkins quickly rousted her husband of 40 years, Hulen, who grabbed the red-and-white box of Narcan — Naloxone Hydrochloride, the opioid-overdose antidote they’d received after Gabriella’s previous overdose. He ripped open the box, shoved one of the devices into the girl’s nostrils and pushed the plunger. Gabriella sputtered, gagged and vomited. She was alive.

“When the counselor gave me the (Narcan two-pack), I thought, ‘I'm never gonna have to use this,’” Jenkins said. “And we had to use them both. They gave us another one at the hospital and we needed to use that too.”

Ruby, Hulen and Gabriella Jenkins plan to attend Easter services at Westside Church of Christ this Sunday. Ruby Jenkins will sit in the same pew she sits in every week, listen to the same message of renewal she hears every Easter Sunday, and say the same prayer she says multiple times every day: Spare my Gabriella.

But fentanyl — which Gabreilla, according to her mother, typically ingests by “chasing the dragon,” or inhaling the vapor from a heated counterfeit oxycodone pill — is cruelly persistent and immune to reason. Gabriella’s boyfriend died from a fentanyl overdose last year, and the boyfriend’s brother from a fentanyl overdose the year before.

Gabriella says she wants to quit and believes she can, but she admits it can be tough.

“I left Bakersfield for six months and I threw the pills away as soon as I got on the bus,” Gabriella said. “But as soon as I got back, it all started again. You get bored and this can happen. People need to find (constructive) things to do with their time.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid formulated in the 1960s as a painkiller for use in post-surgery, cancer treatment and battlefield situations. It is highly potent and lethal in miniscule amounts. For decades illicitly manufactured versions have been sold on the street, often disguised as pharmaceutical painkillers like Percocet, Norco and Oxycodone, but in recent years its use — and its toll — have exploded.

Annual U.S. fentanyl deaths have been in the many tens of thousands for the past three years. Just last year Kern County saw 232 OD deaths attributed to fentanyl, alone or in combination, an increase over the previous year of more than 80 percent. Over the past year it has turned up as an active ingredient in heroin as well as non-opioids such as cocaine, ecstasy, crystal meth and counterfeit Xanax.

Gabriella was an honors student at Ridgeview High School three of her four years at the south Bakersfield school. She talked about becoming a veterinarian. “Then this last year she got on this stuff and it was really hard to graduate,” Jenkins said.

Gabriella, who has told her mother she wants to quit, has been through a five-day rehab program in Lancaster. So far, there’s been no meaningful change.

“One Sunday at church, she said, ‘Mom, let’s go down for prayer,’” Jenkins said. “I thought, ‘Maybe this is it, the day things change.’”

The change seems not to have lasted.

Jenkins, 73, has raised enough children to practically fill the football grandstands at Ridgeview. In addition to five of her own; the two Hulen — a 75-year-old retired ARCO oilfield supervisor — brought into the fold; the several they’ve fostered together over the years; and the two they adopted — Gabriella being the youngest of them all — Jenkins worked as a preschool teacher for 40 years. She first taught at the Little Red School House, then Munchkinland, then Agapeland, then, for the final 20 years of her active career, Miss Ruby’s Child Care. She still watches two young ones in her home.

That’s around 500 children, she figures, not counting all the kids in her extended family at Westside Church of Christ, a church Gabriella has attended since Ruby and Hulen Jenkins brought her home as a seven-day-old baby.

Jenkins hopes that consistency will be her daughter’s literal salvation, but she is beyond worried.

“I’m at my wit’s end,” Jenkins said. “I just don't know what to do. Nothing has worked. But the other day, she said, ‘Mom, ‘I’m sorry I’m being selfish,’”

Her mom forgives her for that. She forgives her for everything. She just wants her daughter back. She, Hulen, Henny — the whole brood — just want her back.