Grandmother speaks out against ‘huffing’

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 18, 2010

Outside of three family members, Jo Isenberg has never told anyone the real way her granddaughter, Christie Henderson, died.

She’s never spoken a word about April 28, 2009, the day she came home to find her granddaughter, 21, lying dead on the floor of their Andalusia home, a half-filled can of compressed air by her side.

That was the day Isenberg said she realized there are things going on in this world the people know nothing about – and death by inhalants was one of them.

Since that day nearly a year ago, Isenberg has picked up the pieces and made it her mission to educate people on the dangers of “huffing” or “bagging” – the practice of intentionally breathing gas or vapors to a achieve a high. Inhalants are legal, everyday products such as felt tip markers, spray paint and gasoline – all of which have a useful purpose, but can be misused. In Henderson’s case, it was computer keyboard cleaner – despite a visible warning on the can as to the dangers of huffing.

Inhalants produce a quick but short high – typically three to four minutes in length. Users can experience what is called Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, meaning the practice can cause death at its first use.

Henderson was a victim of SSDS, her death ruled an accidental overdose caused by cardiac arrest.

“I make no excuses for Christie,” Isenberg said. “Since she was 13 or so, she’s battled with drugs, but for the 16 months before she died, she was clean. She had her life back together. I don’t know what happened. I just know she’s dead, and it could have been prevented.”

Isenberg described her granddaughter, whom she adopted at the age of 11, as a happy person. At the time, the family was living in Nevada and then moved to Texas.

It was at that time Henderson began experimenting with pot, she said.

“The drug use just progressed,” Isenberg said. “I don’t know why. Peer pressure, maybe. What I do know is that at 16, she went to using meth. That’s when she got into trouble with the law.”

Henderson was eventually sentenced to probation and rehabilitation, and Isenberg said she pleaded with the judge to allow her granddaughter to go through rehab in Enterprise. He agreed.

“She had been clean for 16 months and only had three months to go on her probation when she died,” Isenberg said. “Like I said she had her life together. She’d been baptized, had a job, even had a little car. She was going to (Lurleen B. Wallace Community College). She was even going to the gym. She had turned her life around completely, or so I thought.”

Isenberg said she had no idea of her granddaughter’s “huffing” addition. As one of the conditions of her parole, Henderson was required to pass mandatory drug tests. Isenberg said she believes one of the draws of “huffing” for Henderson was that after three-to-five hours, all signs of the inhalant are gone from the system.

“Why start back after being clean? I don’t know,” she said of Henderson’s drug use. “I can’t tell you because I just don’t know.”

This week is recognized as the National Inhalant and Poison Prevention Week, and in its honor, Isenberg, for lack of a better phrase, decided to “come clean” Wednesday about the way her granddaughter died.

“What I do know is that I have to get the word out,” she said. “I have to share what happened to our family, so that maybe one person can be saved. We try so hard as parents to protect our children, to be aware, but unless you’re knowledgeable about (huffing) or know the signs, a parent is going to say, ‘My child wouldn’t do that.’

“(Parents) have no idea,” she said.

Signs of huffing include a red, runny eyes or nose combined with chemical breath, slurred speech, excessive or odd laughter, a “drunk” appearance, glassy, dilated, or constricted eyes, sweating, nonsensical talk, paranoia, withdrawal from family or finding rags/cotton balls and plastic bags with chemical odor or correction fluid on nose, fingers, or clothes or finding markers in pockets.

“I urge all parents to pay attention to who your children are with, what they’re doing,” she said. “Look at me. I can tell you, it can make all the difference in the world.”