Quelling the ‘stigma of shame’: The county’s top doctor opens up about the pain of losing a child to fentanyl

Gail Newel looks up at the artwork of her son Nyeland, who died of a fentanyl overdose in 2016.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

If it can happen to Santa Cruz County Public Health Officer Gail Newel and her wife, Kelli, both longtime physicians, then it can happen to any family. If it can happen to the highest achievers in our society, like doctors and dentists and lawyers, then it can happen to anyone. Nyeland Newel was a 38-year-old dentist who picked up an opioid craving while at UC Santa Cruz. His addictive genes collided with America’s opioid crisis in tragic fashion.

Dr. Gail Newel walks through the open, airy hallway of her midcentury modern home in a rustic corner of the Santa Cruz foothills, back toward the room she and her wife, Kelli, have crafted into a living memorial.

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She points to the wall of artwork created by their son Nyeland — an amazing collection of lively, complex character drawings that match the home’s postmodern flair.

“You can see in all of them,” Newel says, “there was a bit of a dark side.”

Newel, an obstetrician-gynecologist who became Santa Cruz County’s health officer in 2019, just in time to take on a worldwide pandemic, knows the timing is right to go more loudly public about the ongoing epidemic she knows far too intimately.

It’s the story of how she lost her son to a fentanyl overdose.

“POISONED” PART 1: The facts about the fentanyl crisis that is killing an increasing number of Santa Cruz County’s young people

She has spoken about that September 2016 loss in meetings with other public officials, and has been an active voice in spotlighting the topic on Overdose Awareness Day.

A collection of photos Gail Newel put together of her son Nyeland.

But she hasn’t put it all out there in stark detail for the community she shepherds.

As illuminated by Monday night’s town hall, it’s an important story for all to hear. Santa Cruz County is under siege from a fentanyl-induced overdose epidemic — a “poisoning” epidemic to many who have lost a loved one — that is attacking the entire country at a disturbing rate and isn’t just targeting “other” people. It’s targeting those we know and love.

“POISONED” PART 2: A community comes together for a town hall meeting — a sign that education and information are becoming a priority

Newel still struggles to wrap her head around how such an inconceivable tragedy could infiltrate a home like hers.

“He had two parents who were physicians …” she says, voice trailing off as if, six years later, the feeling of disbelief lingers.

Nyeland Newel's rap name was Second Rate Hustler.

For Part 3 of Lookout’s series on the fentanyl crisis, Newel agreed to open up about the “poisoning” of her own beloved, funny, artistic, musically inclined son who was a dentist in Santa Cruz, helping serve underserved communities.

He died in his room at their two-story home in the flats of Rio Del Mar — he had moved back in with his family six months earlier after a divorce — as his younger brother baked banana bread, which they had planned to share later that night.

Nyeland Newel, 38, was poisoned, his mom says, not just by the drug he ingested, which also included an unknown and lethal dose of fentanyl, they would learn. He was also poisoned by a medical establishment and society that had rigged the game against those with addiction in their genes or underlying trauma and mental health conditions.

“When we put the pieces together after Nyeland’s death, we said, ‘We’re gonna have a whole nation full of addicts in a few years,’” Gail Newel says. “And you know what, here we are.”

Nyeland, Gail and Conlin Newel.
(Via Gail Newel/Phillip Van Nostrand)

The pieces needed to be gathered and put together — from Nyeland’s online history, from his ex-wife, from previously private medical records that dated back to his days at UC Santa Cruz — because his moms didn’t know he was battling a raging opioid addiction.

Or that it had begun from a brief dalliance with heroin while in college that reared back in a dark and powerful way when he entered dental school at just the moment sales reps for Purdue Pharma and others were dropping off boxes of unregulated opioids en masse.

For 36 years, Gail Newel has been a practicing medical doctor and took the Hippocratic oath to do no harm, like all physicians must. Like so many others duped by Big Pharma into prescribing addictive opioids, she feels an obligation to help right the wrongs done to so many Americans.

Gail Newel looks at one of her favorites shots of her and Nyeland.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It can be a surreal and agonizing task when it includes the one whose bedroom, at the end of the long hallway, she walks into often to reconnect.

“It still feels like a dream to me,” Newel says. “I still keep thinking he’s gonna walk through the door.”

Wrong place at the right time

How Nyeland Newel ended up returning from a trip to the Boardwalk his senior year at UCSC in 2000 with a stash of heroin remains a mystery to his family.

But the details his parents pored over in the months after his death told them that “he got into trouble with it very quickly,” Gail Newel says. “He was able to get methadone treatment through student health before graduation, whether they had it or directed him somewhere else, so we never even knew.”

Nyeland explored using his UCSC art degree to make a living. He took digital classes at the SAE Expression College in Emeryville, married his junior high sweetheart and followed her to Los Angeles, where she was continuing her education. While she attended grad school, he dabbled in Hollywood, doing post-production effects.

Newel said that’s when the first signs of Nyeland’s addictive genes showed themselves.

“He was already in rehab from what we thought was alcohol and he said, ‘I just can’t stay sober here. In order to get jobs you’ve got to socialize and hobnob,’” she says.

So he and his wife moved back to their hometown of Fresno — where his mom’s family of Mennonites had settled back in the 1960s — and he began talking to his uncle about his life as a dentist. His grandpa, Newel’s dad, was a well-respected local pediatrician and founding member of the Fresno Children’s Medical Group.

Dr. Gail Newel in her home office.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Back at home and surrounded by family, Newel said there was no indication that Nyeland had developed a problem with opioids. But by the time he found his way to dental school in 2006, the proliferation of pain medication such as OxyContin had exploded. And for someone who had developed a taste for the addictive high of opioids years earlier, the temptations were overwhelming.

“There were literally boxes of opioids without any kind of controls,” she says. “He got in trouble with it real fast.”

Addiction lurking below the surface

Newel’s Mennonite roots run 500 years deep. As part of the modern version of the Amish religion that had formed a community in Fresno, her family didn’t use substances, so in the aftermath of Nyeland’s death, that meant their genetic proclivity to addiction wasn’t a known factor.

But on the other side of the family, from Nyeland’s biological father and Newel’s ex-husband, he inherited a sizable dose of addictive genes, she said. Newel witnessed her sister-in-law die from chronic alcoholism at age 53, and “it was horrible to watch.”

She said that both sets of grandparents struggled with addiction, one pair with alcohol, the other with benzodiazepines, a highly addictive class of drugs such as Xanax and Valium.

For someone who didn’t have much early experience with substance use personally, Newel caught up at a breakneck pace. Her wife, Kelli Beingesser, also an obstetrician/gynecologist, is a recovering alcoholic and someone whom Nyeland leaned on greatly on his path to sobriety.

Both moms look back in the aftermath, along with friends of Nyeland’s, at the signs they could’ve seen. Small things, like nasal congestion he often attributed to allergies, seemed much larger suddenly. Beingesser talked to him more than anyone about his sobriety, and she didn’t have a clue he was playing with the fire of opioids.

“I felt like ours was a shared sobriety — and you look back now on stuff and think, ‘How could I have been so stupid?’” she says. “But like all skilled addicts, he had all the right answers. He was in an isolated relationship with addiction, meaning it was him and his drugs.”

When that becomes the case, especially for those in the medical and dental fields who risk losing so much (in Nyeland’s case, Newel says, he still had $250,000 in dental school loans to repay), the stigma and shame and potential for loss prevent the kind of open conversations that just might help.

“There are so many barriers,” Beingesser says.

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A mother’s anger, a doctor’s anger

Recognizing that doctor-prescribed opioids were destroying those they purported to be saving from pain, a strong effort to curb prescribers in the Santa Cruz County community decreased prescription-related deaths by nearly 40% from 2012 to 2018.

But that effort was too late to save the life of Nyeland Newel.

He was going to recovery meetings with his stepmom, and they learned later he was paying cash out of pocket for Suboxone treatment so that he wouldn’t have to tell his employer and be susceptible to losing his dental license.

“That’s part of that stigma and shame,” Newel says. “You’re in a job category, like a truck driver, or an airplane pilot or anybody in the medical profession, where you will lose your work if you tell them that you have this medical condition.

Gail Newel
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

How can that be legal? I mean, there’s no other medical condition where that’s the case. The problem is legally it’s a medical condition, but societally it’s not.

— Gail Newel

“How can that be legal? I mean, there’s no other medical condition where that’s the case. The problem is legally it’s a medical condition, but societally it’s not.”

Newel challenges us as a society to stop and think about how we got to this place.

“What is it about our country that makes us such huge consumers of drugs?” she asks. “Why do we have such a problem with addiction? We’re missing something else.”

Beingesser believes the deepest level of stigma around addiction and overdose is actually worn in the medical profession ranks where the opioid problem arose. And she wishes we could get past the unnecessary barriers that prevent solutions.

“Every single physician knows another physician who has died in the hospital due to an accidental overdose,” she says. “This is something that happens to smart people and dumb people, rich people and poor people. It’s about our chemistry and how it relates to substances.”

Full circle with the original opioid

The introspective artist that he was, Nyeland had been working on a graphic novel about his addiction and recovery.

“He told us he was working on it, but we didn’t see it until after his death,” Gail Newel says.

The night he died, Nyeland was smoking black tar heroin, or “chasing the dragon,” as it’s known.

He had been able to prescribe himself opioids for years, until the regulatory crackdown kicked in. At least those pills were sure to be free of fentanyl.

But when that path dried up, or became more dicey, he had to turn to the dark web to get counterfeit prescription pills directly from China, Newel said their later investigations discovered.

While those black market purchases were likely to be dangerous then, fentanyl wasn’t nearly as prevalent in pills in 2016 as it is now. There were, however, ongoing efforts to close down those illicit supply chains, and Nyeland found himself in a desperate position to find the next available source to keep his cravings and the pain of withdrawal at bay.

From the available evidence his family found, this is the only explanation his mothers could deduce that would’ve led him back to the same Beach Flats drug dealer near the Boardwalk that had sold him heroin 16 years earlier.

Nyeland, Madeline, Gail and Conlin Newel.
(Via Gail Newel/Phillip Van Nostrand)

Nyeland Newel never awoke to the smell of fresh banana bread like he told his brother he would. As Beingesser arrived from her night shift and watched the ambulance take her stepson to Dominican Hospital, clinging faintly to life, a new neighbor, also in scrubs, emerged from down the block.

“It was another doctor that Kelli knew who had just moved in three doors down,” Newel says. “He says, ‘Oh my God, I lost my son to an opioid overdose last year — I’m so sorry.’”

Newel says they know who the dealer is who sold their son the fentanyl-laced heroin that killed him that evening in September 2016.

“He’s probably got his own painful story,” she reasons, choosing to cast her own pain and anger elsewhere, like at Purdue Pharma’s Sackler family and the country that propped them up.

“My anger is more directed at the big systemic problems and the bill of goods that we as physicians were sold,” she says. “And the way our country has allowed this kind of nonsense to happen and perpetuated it.”

Beingesser jokes that she was Nyeland’s favorite mom and says she will miss her stepson and good buddy in ways that most lucky parents will never know.

“You really never heal — you just learn to live with it,” she says. “You protect the people around you that you still have, you enjoy some good memories and you don’t forget that it happened.”

Most important, she said, “you try to be available for other people who are struggling.”

If they can find a publisher, Nyeland’s moms hope to publish the nearly finished book that he left behind.

“It’s the story of his addiction and recovery, unfinished,” says Newel. “It’s poignant.”

***

Nyeland through his Instagram feed

The type of sense of humor he infamously exhibited, his family says

Conlin and Nyeland

Nyeland the dentist at Dientes

More Nyeland humor

Nyeland the rap artist

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