Surviving a “lean” overdose

After drinking a deadly opiate cocktail to get high, Joe Gorman spent 40 days in a coma at Staten Island University Hospital. Nearly two years later, he's still recovering from its effects.

There are parts of November 2, 2016, that Joe Gorman remembers vividly. He recalls taking Xanax, hanging out with his girlfriend that night, driving her home and then heading to his grandmother’s house.

Joe’s drug use had been spiraling for several months since the death of his beloved grandfather.

At his grandmother’s house, Joe drank a mix of prescription-strength cough syrup and Sprite – a drink known as “lean” – that he and his friends had used in the past to get high.

But this time there was no euphoria. Instead, he lost consciousness, fell and whacked the back of his head. No one knows how long Joe was down for, but at some point he began to aspirate.

In the morning, Joe’s grandmother found him lifeless and sprawled on the floor. Her chihuahua was licking vomit off of Joe’s face.

Lean – also known as “purple drank” and “sizzurp” – combines the opiate painkiller codeine and antihistamine promethazine with soda into a sweet and deadly drink. It comes with a high risk of fatal overdose because the drink depresses the central nervous system and can slow or stop the heart and lungs.

His grandmother called 911 and Joe’s mother. Within minutes, EMTs were performing CPR on Joe. The outcome wasn’t looking good.

“I drove there like a maniac,” says Carol Gorman, Joe's mother. “I didn’t think he was going to make it.”

Joe Gorman was in a coma for 40 days and endured two and a half months of rehab at Staten Island University Hospital.

But he did, spending the next 40 days in a coma at Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH).

On December 7, Joe opened his eyes, but did not have any response to or awareness of the many family members and friends at his bedside in the hospital’s vent unit. Discussions ensued about transferring him to a nursing facility.

On December 13 – his grandfather’s birthday – a hospital social worker was able to get Joe to open his mouth and move his tongue.

Carol Gorman, Joe's mother, stayed by his side after the overdose of lean.

“That’s when I knew he was going to be all right,” said Mrs. Gorman. “God gave me my miracle.”

Days later, as his mom, uncle and girlfriend played a recording of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” Joe was able to mouth the words of the song.

Joe spent another 2 1/2 months in rehab at the hospital, learning to walk, talk and live life again.

“Talking is very hard,” explains Joe. “I can hear the words that I’m going to say in my head but it doesn’t come out the way I want it to.”

Joe Gorman with Kevin Parker, who also recovered from an opioid overdose.

Inspired by a hospital visit from Kevin Parker, a former opioid abuser turned peer mentor, Joe now wants to help others stay off the addiction path he was on.

“My life was very nice before. I was perfectly normal,” says Joe, now 22, who has spent the last 1 ½ years rebuilding his life. “I had friends. I had my girl and it all came down crashing.”

Currently, Joe is attending a traumatic brain injury program at SIUH. He is also going for vision therapy necessitated when he hit his head and injured the part of the brain responsible for visual processing.

Joe hopes to eventually regain enough sight to drive again and finish his liberal arts degree at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

“As long as I keep making progress I think I can do anything,” says Joe.

Struggling with addiction on Staten Island? Call the hotline for help.