How One Mom is Addressing the Fentanyl Epidemic

By Shayna Mace | Photography by Hillary Schave

In the fall of 2021, life was good for Michelle Kullmann. The owner of Play It Again Sports Madison (and former owner/publisher of BRAVA) was engaged to her fiancé, Peter, and her boys seemed settled. Her younger son, Cade, was a freshman at UW-Milwaukee and was enjoying his time there. Her older son, Ross, was in an internship program in Washington, D.C.

But on November 4, 2021, Kullmann’s world turned upside down when she received an early morning text, then phone call, from her brother, Craig. Cade had passed away a little after midnight in his dorm suite. Fentanyl poisoning was the cause.

“I thought, ‘This makes no sense. Cade doesn’t even do drugs. Like, he knows better.’ I was screaming. I said, ‘No, no, there’s no way.’ I just remember walking around saying, ‘No, no, no,’” Kullmann explains of that fateful morning, shaking her head, tears shining in her eyes.

Kullmann, like any parent, wanted to find out what happened. After piecing together Cade’s evening based off of conversations with his friends, bar security footage and talking to campus police, she learned that Cade had purchased one Percocet pill and took it in a bar’s bathroom. He was then asked to leave the bar and headed back to his dorm. When he reached the dorm, he told a friend he took a Percocet and felt “yucky,” then laid down in a beanbag chair in the dorm suite’s common room. In less than two hours, he passed away. Cade’s dormmate discovered him and alerted emergency personnel who attempted to revive him, but it was too late.

Kullmann suspects Cade took an M30 pill, which is a counterfeit oxycodone pill, laced with a lethal dose of fentanyl. (Cade’s autopsy confirmed he died from fentanyl poisoning.) The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies M30 pills as a type of counterfeit pill that is made to look exactly like an oxycodone tablet, but may contain “no active ingredient, the wrong active ingredient … Counterfeit pills may contain lethal amounts of fentanyl or methamphetamine and are extremely dangerous because they often appear identical to their legitimate prescription pills, and the user is likely unaware of how lethal they can be,” cites a DEA fact sheet.

It’s scary to think about — that something as innocuous as one pain pill can kill. Kullmann is incredulous when she thinks about it, too.

“We start kids off taking Advil and Tylenol. And so many people are on medications for anxiety and depression. So, how normal is it to take a Xanax or a Percocet? I mean, they prescribe opioids to kids after they get their wisdom teeth out. It’s so normalized. If you don’t have [this] on your radar and don’t know anything about fake pills and that they can be laced with fentanyl … it doesn’t seem scary.”

Kullmann readily admits that Cade had battled substance abuse in high school — and likely was taking pain pills recreationally that were not prescribed to him when he was at UW-Milwaukee — which she learned about after his death.

The problem is the fentanyl, she says. It’s 50 times more potent than heroin. It’s being added as a cheap filler by drug cartels to produce massive quantities of pills to sell. And each pill can vary in the amount of fentanyl it may (or may not) contain — up to a lethal amount.

“Right now, the way the drug supply is in our country, anything that is not from a pharmacy [that you take] is playing Russian roulette,” she says about the risks of taking anything that’s not prescribed.

After Cade’s passing, Kullmann, who is well-known as a community connector, educated herself on the fentanyl epidemic — it helped her deal with her trauma. She wanted to figure out why this was happening — and why it happened to her goofy, energetic boy who was beloved by his friends, loved to skateboard and do backflips.

“This is happening all over the country with kids that are using prescription pills for the first time that turn out to be fake, and the pills are laced with fentanyl, and they’re dying. It wasn’t Cade’s first time — but this happens.”

In 2020, nearly 75% of drug overdoses involved an opioid, reports the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In 2021, deaths from drug overdoses hit record-breaking levels at nearly 108,000, which the CDC says is the result of an ever-worsening fentanyl crisis.

Kullmann admits she’s not a fentanyl expert and doesn’t have all of the answers. She doesn’t have a “set” plan of action of what she’s going to do next. But she’s already done an awful lot to raise awareness of the fentanyl epidemic locally since that crushing November morning.

Through a personal connection, she was able to meet with then-Interim UW System president Tommy Thompson to discuss urging all UW System campuses to install Narcan rescue kits in UW residence halls and launch an awareness campaign. (UW-Oshkosh already had them installed last fall.) So far, she says that UW-La Crosse, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Eau Claire and UW-Parkside all have plans to put in the kits. She also testified at a state Senate hearing about decriminalizing fentanyl test strips (which passed). And she’s spoken at public events at Waunakee High School and Horizon High School about Cade’s story and the dangers of illicit drugs and fentanyl.

Next, the self-proclaimed “warrior mama” is helping to launch a public health campaign on the topic for the Dane County area in collaboration with Safe Communities, an area nonprofit focused on saving lives, injury prevention and safety.

“I’m grateful I have something to pour my grief into, and to advocate and try to save other lives. If we call this a drug overdose, kids think, ‘Well, I’m smarter than that.’ But if we start changing the narrative to saying you’re getting something you didn’t intend to take, you’re being poisoned. … You don’t think you’re going to die from taking one pill.”

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