Family rallies to help Sophia, an orphan of the overdose crisis with rare genetic abnormality

More help is needed to get addicts into treatment, says family of young woman lost to overdose crisis.

VANCOUVER, BC - September 27, 2020 - Heather and Gavin Fallow, with granddaughter Sophia, daughter Rebecca Fallow and her partner Dan Szetela at the Fallow home in Ladner, B.C., September 27, 2020. Heather and Gavin are adopting Sophia after their daughter overdosed. (Photo by Arlen Redekop / Vancouver Sun / The Province -PNG) (story by Denise Ryan) [PNG Merlin Archive]

Rebecca Fallow isn’t the type to go behind her parents’ backs. They had already been through more than any parents should have to endure when, in May, they lost their daughter, Mary-ann, 27, to a drug overdose.

But when Rebecca’s secret was discovered, she said her parents, Heather and Gavin Fallow, cried. Tears of relief, and joy. Rebecca’s secret was a GoFundMe page to help them with expenses related to the burial of their daughter, and the adoption of Mary-ann’s seven-year-old daughter, Sophia.

Sophia was an overdose-crisis orphan — her father had already died from a drug overdose in May 2014 when she was just eleven months old.

“Sophia is the light of our lives,” said Heather on the phone.

Sophia has faced one obstacle after another since she was born. She was born incredibly small, said Heather, with two holes in her heart and received her first heart surgery within days. Before her first birthday there would be two more heart surgeries, and a blood infection.

Rebecca said: “There was no help. She was going from emergency room to emergency room, to doctor after doctor and they would give her prescription after prescription.”

Because Mary-ann was an adult, the family couldn’t force her into detox or rehab.

“Becky (Rebecca) and I even went to her doctor and said she’s out of control, she’s in a bad way, she needs help. It did no good and now I don’t have my daughter,” Heather said.

Rebecca said families need more help, and addicts need treatment.

She said: “My hope is to build a community of people that care about her (Sophia) and love her and help her grow. I don’t want her to feel that hole in her life, I want her to feel a part of a community.”

Doctors eventually discovered Sophia’s health issues are related to Au-Kline Syndrome, a genetic chromosomal abnormality so rare that she is only one-of-three in Canada, and 17 worldwide, who has it.

Sophia has developmental delays, and requires significant and costly medical supports, and has had six major surgeries, including five open-heart procedures.

Heather believes her daughter, Mary-ann, never recovered from the death of Sophia’s dad, and was overwhelmed by grief and emotional issues. Mary-ann had chronic pain due to osteophytes pressing on nerves in her neck. Her dependency on opioids began after the birth of her daughter, when she was prescribed opiate medication for pain.

“She was a good daughter, very, very intelligent. Lovely, sweet, but the addiction got worse-and-worse,” Heather said. “Now I’m 62 and becoming a mom again.” 

Heather said the family tried desperately to help Mary-ann: “I took her to every place I could think of to get help, to VGH, to detox centres. We couldn’t get help. The system let us down big-time.”

Mary-ann, who lived with her parents, died at home on the sofa, as if she had just laid down for a nap. The toxicology report showed Mary-ann had traces of prescribed Hydromorphone, and a small amount of cocaine in her system at the time of her death. Final toxicology tests won’t be available for several more months.

“So much more needs to be done for the (drug) overdose crisis,” said Heather. “We need places for people to go. People who will listen when you talk, not just poo-poo you and send you away.”

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