Parents of local graduate speak out about methanol poisoning

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 7, 2018

By Andie Foley

For Crystal Turney, early morning FaceTime conversations with her 21-year-old son Ryan were a near-daily occurrence.

Ryan, a graduate of Carson High School and senior at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, had a love of travel and unquenchable thirst for adventure. It started in grade school, carrying him across the country and, later, the globe.

Fall 2018 found him studying abroad in Bangkok, Thailand, his second semester overseas. FaceTime therein remained the student’s most reliable means of keeping in contact with loved ones, and he routinely video chatted with his mother as she headed into work.

A break in routine came Sunday, Sept. 23, when Crystal checked her phone to find several missed calls and messages through Facebook messenger.

The calls weren’t from Ryan. They were from the mother of one of his friends, one of four he’d met up with for a weekend excursion to Hanoi, Vietnam.

“She just let us know that Ryan was in trouble,” said Eric Turney, Ryan’s father. “He was in the hospital. She said she didn’t have many details and she would get back to us when she did.”

“Don’t let him die.”

Eric and Crystal said details about Ryan’s condition came in “like a blur.” Through his traveling companions, they learned he’d gone to the hospital with what he believed to be a hangover with severe dehydration.

“He had blurry vision, a really bad headache,” said Crystal. “He went in and said, ‘I need an IV.’ He truly thought that an IV and maybe some pain medicine might help cure whatever ailment he had. He thought he was coming home.”

But his condition would rapidly decline. In a matter of hours, Ryan went from making jokes with his friends as he waited to be seen to collapsing en route to the restroom. He had no prior history of illness.

Separated by over 8,500 miles from their son, Crystal and Eric each got one last time to FaceTime with an unresponsive Ryan while doctors struggled to identify and treat his condition.

“I was yelling at the doctor saying ‘No die! Don’t let him die,'” said Crystal.

Both encouraged him to wake up, to keep fighting, but doctors were unable to revive him.

Ryan’s silent killer

In the hours that followed the unexpected passing of the healthy, happy college student, details slowly arose about the cause of his death. Ryan’s travel companions were interviewed by both hospital staff and police, each asking the names of the places they had visited the night before.

Eventually, a diagnosis was given: cardiac arrest likely caused by methanol poisoning, a rising epidemic in Asia caused by improperly distilled alcohol.

Methanol, a colorless and odorless chemical, is a byproduct produced during the fermentation process meant to burn off during distilling. In the unregulated markets of developing countries, alcohol producers looking to turn quick profits fail to sufficiently heat the alcohol, leaving the toxic chemical behind.

Just one shot glass of methanol is enough to kill, and its symptoms closely mimic those of a hangover.

The difference? Changes in or loss of vision, such as Ryan’s blurry eyes.

“I believe Ryan didn’t know,” said Crystal. “If Ryan had been aware of methanol poisoning, he would have said to the doctors, ‘I remember reading about this. I remember understanding that the very first symptom is blurry vision.'”

And if doctors had known what to treat in Ryan’s case, Crystal said the outcome could have been much different.

“Being educated can help prevent it. You don’t have to die from it,” she said. “When you have these symptoms, there are things that doctors and hospital can do to help.”

A growing epidemic

Eric and Crystal each describe Ryan as a seasoned traveler, with some 48 states and five continents checked off in his quest to travel the globe. The problem, they said, is that none in the family had ever heard of methanol poisoning before that late September day.

“Ryan was a smart kid, very smart,” said Eric. “He would book his flights and he would just take charge when he traveled, but this was something that he was obviously not aware of. If he’s not aware of it then a lot of people would not be aware of it.”

With his studies, Ryan’s school had provided careful guidance from vaccines to the contents of his suitcase, said Crystal. No mention came of methanol.

Yet incidents of the poisonings are on the rise. The Vietnam Food Administration reported 382 people were poisoned by unsafe alcohol over the past 10 years, including 98 fatalities. In Malaysia, some 40 were killed from tainted drinks just last month.

“It was never addressed. There’s no fault to anyone. It truly is a silent epidemic,” said Crystal. “But when the university sends students over, that is going to be our message to them. This is part of something you need to share. We want you to share this.”

Avoiding methanol poisoning

Following his son’s passing, Eric said his main concern is making sure travelers are aware of the dangers of methanol.

“Ryan would totally go against us trying to prevent people from traveling,” he said. “But just be smart when you’re out there.”

According to the L.I.A.M. Charitable Fund, a nonprofit seeking to increase awareness of methanol poisoning, methanol poisoning can be avoided by simply knowing what drinks are safe and which are most at risk of contamination.

Open spirits from bars, restaurants or hotels are most likely to be those with bootlegged and dangerously distilled brews.

Sealed drinks, such as beer, wine, cider or premixed drinks are safer options, though the possibility of low-quality knock offs still remains.

The safest option, according to the site? Take your own drink if looking to consume.

Following consumption abroad, be aware of any experience of blurred or snowy vision, breathing difficulty, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain, severe headache, low blood pressure, dizziness or disorientation or bluish-colored lips or fingernails.

Any of these symptoms warrant an immediate trip to the nearest hospital. Methanol poisoning, as in Ryan’s case, can kill quickly.

“We just want people to just to know that it’s out there,” said Eric. “College kids going on Spring Break and leaving the country, just be aware. Be safe. Have a good time, but just know that this is a possibility.”

In memory of Ryan

One week after Ryan’s passing, hundreds filled the grounds of Gold Hill Historic Park to celebrate his life.

Some travelled from as far away as Norway, and his Australian friends held a candlelight vigil in his honor the night before, said Crystal.

“Some kids are into music. Some kids are into sports,” said Eric. “His thing was travel and making friends from all over the world.”

This, said family friend Emily Ford, was proof that Ryan’s life had been lived to its fullest.

“It’s been said that the ‘biggest adventure you can take is to live the life  of your dreams,'” said Ford during the service. “Ryan was living his best life.

Both Ford and Ryan’s grandfather, Stuart “Pops” Ahrens, encouraged attendees to take another passion of Ryan’s into their daily lives: his passion for diversity and kindness.

It was this passion for humanity and full life, said Crystal and Eric, that keeps them moving forward with their surviving daughter, Anne Marie.

“Someone told us we have two paths to take. We can take one of gratitude or we can take one of anger. For us, we’re having to take the gratitude,” said Crystal. “Part of that is remembering all the great things and all the goodness that he was and continuing that.”