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Sister speaks out about ecstasy risks

Nineteen-year-old Shawna had just gone to bed, but she heard her father answer the early-morning phone call to the McCormack home.

There was panic in his voice.

It was Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011.

The call had come from a friend of Shawna’s younger sister, Cheryl, who was away at a sleepover.

Cheryl had taken ecstasy, and was having a bad reaction.

Shawna, who has an innate ability to remain calm in chaotic moments, hurried to the home with her mom.

Cheryl was unconscious on the floor. Her jaw was clenched shut and her lips were blue. Shawna tried to open Cheryl’s mouth, worried that she had bitten her tongue, and tried to rouse her, but she remained unresponsive.  One of the friends called 911.

Shawna and her mom sat on the floor beside Cheryl.

“It’s OK. You’re going to be OK,” they told her.

* * *

Cheryl’s parents always said she was the type of child who never caused them any trouble.

She was two years younger than Shawna, and she looked up to her big sister. They took figure skating lessons together as young children and competed in synchronized skating with the Abbotsford Skating Club until they were 14 and 16 years old.

Cheryl was in Grade 8 at Clayburn middle school when she discovered a love for a sport that was in direct contrast to the grace and poise of figure skating.

Rugby became her new passion.

Somewhat of a tomboy at heart, Cheryl loved the physicality of the game, even though she once broke her wrist while playing.

She remained with the sport when she moved to Robert Bateman secondary in Grade 9, and was known for her team spirit and ability to motivate the other players. She was set to become co-captain in Grade 12.

Her dedication to rugby did not detract from her studies.

Cheryl, an A and B student, always did her homework without having to be told. She especially loved to write, and English and P.E. were her favourite subjects.

She worked at two jobs – helping her uncle at his cresting and sportswear business, and answering phones for a pizza restaurant.

She had a rich social life, filled with friends and family. She and Shawna were particularly close to their two female cousins– also sisters two years apart – and the two families often vacationed together.

Last summer, Cheryl was ecstatic when she learned to water ski.

She was particularly excited about graduation this year, and already had her grad date lined up, and her gown ordered.

After graduation, she wanted to study nursing.

Shawna and Cheryl McCormackShawna and Cheryl were close, disagreeing only about typical sister things like borrowing clothes without permission. Last December, they solidified their bond with matching tattoos – the Italian word for “sister” (sorella) with two stars.

Shawna knew that Cheryl had used ecstasy several times over a period of months, taking it recreationally when with friends.

The group would call a dial-a-dope line to get it, and use it instead of drinking alcohol.

Cheryl liked the added benefit of the weight loss that resulted, but it wasn’t the only reason she used it. If she had been aware of the risks, she might not have tried it at all.

* * *

By the time paramedics arrived and Cheryl was rushed to the hospital, her body temperature was 43 degrees C (normal is 37), and her heart rate was 197.

She was placed in a medically induced coma while doctors tried to reduce her body temperature with ice packs and ice blankets.

At one point, it looked like Cheryl would survive, although she had suffered damage to most of her internal organs, including her kidneys, lungs and liver.

But by Thursday, Dec. 22, nurses were having difficulty finding her pulse.

Cheryl’s parents, sister, aunts, uncles and cousins came to her bedside.

They watched the monitor as the beats of Cheryl’s heart grew weaker, until there was one steady, flat line.

Their loved one, with so much hope and promise before her, was gone at only 17.

* * *

Shawna and her parents do not want Cheryl’s death to be in vain.

They agreed to release Cheryl’s name and photo just after her death, when the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) issued the information to the public, to inform others about the risks associated with using ecstasy.

All three are also included in a video currently being produced for high school presentations, and Shawna has become the family’s spokesperson, giving media interviews and planning to speak at the secondary school programs.

“It’s good for us to get (the information) out there so people know it can happen to anyone,” Shawna said.

She wants people to recognize that ecstasy is not a fun party drug and even one dose can kill. No one knows the exact concoction of ingredients in their dose or how their body will react.

Shawna has become so impassioned about the issue that she is now considering a career as a youth addictions counsellor.

Mainly, she wants people to remember Cheryl. Her tribute to her sister includes a tattoo on her upper back with angel wings, Cheryl’s birthdate and date of death, and the words “Cheryl. Forever in my heart. My guardian angel.”

“I don’t want her death to be forgotten, and for her death to be for no reason. I believe she died so other lives could be saved,” Shawna said.

The family has also set up a bursary in Cheryl’s name through the Abbotsford Community Foundation. For more information, call 604-850-3755 or email info@abbotsfordcf.org.

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