CLEVELAND COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - Joel Ledbetter knows the opioid crisis is more than just a catchphrase. He watched his son, Jonathan, struggle with addiction for years until his battle ended in early November.
The 19-year-old overdosed on Fentanyl patches on Tuesday, November 7. He died in the hospital four days later.
"I thought all through my life - how could somebody bury their own child? And I always told myself if he went before me, I was close behind him if I had to do it myself, if I had to take my own life, I would because I don't think I could bear living without him. And there's no way I can tell you what it's like, the hurt never goes away," Joel said.
Joel doesn't want another parent to face his pain. So he invited WBTV to bring a camera inside his son's funeral. He wants people to see what addiction really looks like.
"If I can help one of them, it's not a lost cause - and that's why I want this story out there," he said.
It was standing room only in the Cleveland County church as stories were shared about a young man who was determined to beat his addiction.
Twenty-four hours later, Jonathan Ledbetter's family sat down to share more about his deep struggle. His family said they did what they could, and now look back wondering what they missed.
"I know by my not knowing what I was looking at that I aided and abetted him in buying some of these drugs, maybe even the ones that killed him," Joel's grandmother, Gertrude, said.
Jonathan wanted to get better.
"He spend that whole week working on his application to get into rehab, running around telling everybody, 'I'm going to get better, I'm going to get better. I love you, I'll see you when I get back,' and that was his goal," Joel said.
That was on Monday. The very next day, the Shanghai Volunteer Fire Department responded to Joel's call after he found his son face-down in his pillow.
"When I woke up and I heard my pager go off and I saw the address, and that it was a 19-year-old male, I automatically knew who it was," Clay Heaffner said.
Heaffner is one of four firefighters who responded Tuesday morning. Lorcan Morris was another.
"For me, it was the worst call I've ever answered, and I don't want to go back and deal with it again," Morris said.
Tragedy is a part of a firefighter's job, but the people they help aren't usually their own.
"As humans, maybe we're a little ignorant in thinking that's the stuff that happens to other people and not to you. We all knew Jonathan's struggles, but not the depth of them," Morris said.
Jonathan was a Shanghai Volunteer Firefighter, just like his father and grandfather, until his opioid addiction forced him to step away.
"A little over a week ago he walked up to me and told me he wanted to get clean and he wanted to be back in the fire department with us," Heaffner said.
After four days on life support, Jonathan died on Friday, but his family truly believes his story is far from over.
"If I can help one of them it's not a lost cause and that's why I want this story out there," Joel repeated.
After Jonathan's death, the Shanghai VFD voted to make him a lifetime member of the department.