On Jan. 3, Nick Ventiere, a wrestling star at East Islip High School, celebrated yet another victory when he won his weight class at a tournament. Two days later, he was on the brink of death, in severe respiratory distress from a drug overdose.
"It was surreal," said his father, Scott Ventiere. "They asked us to leave the emergency room and the priest went in to give our son his last rites. His body crashed due to a loss of oxygen and he flatlined. We lost him. I could see him through an opening in an emergency room curtain and I said what I thought was my final goodbye."
Doctors were able to revive Ventiere and the high school senior is recuperating at home on antibiotics, although he returned to the hospital Monday with breathing complications.
Ventiere's parents shared the ordeal in the hope it would be a cautionary tale. "If this could happen to us, it could happen to anyone," said his father. "The hospital personnel told us this is common; it happens every night. It's an epidemic."
His parents now grapple with questions about the two pills their son took Monday and why. Lab tests are pending on the pills, which are two different types, and Ventiere has told his parents he is not sure what he took.
Ventiere's parents describe their son, the eldest of three, as popular and upbeat. They say they're unaware of any drug use before the overdose.
Nick Ventiere was a standout wrestler in the 125-pound weight class who was on track to earn his 100th career victory and had his sights set on a county title.
East Islip wrestling coach Guy Leggio said he saw the teen's potential. There were high hopes for the five-year varsity starter, who was ranked second in the county in his weight class.
But Leggio knows the grip drugs have on Long Island teens.
"To think that he coded and was gone blows my mind," he said. "This drug abuse is everywhere on Long Island. I'm a volunteer fireman and we see this in every town."
Leggio recalled coaching Ventiere since the first grade, when the talented grappler showed up for the East Islip Kid wrestling program.
"This is family," he said. "This hits home for everyone in our community. We need to turn this situation into a positive."
When Ventiere's parents walked into the intensive care unit last week, their son motioned for a pen and paper.
"He wrote, 'I love you guys. I'm sorry,' " recalled his mother, Dawn Ventiere. "We all cried."
Then, last Thursday, a doctor asked Nick if he knew how many days he had been in the hospital, his mother said.
"My son answered three days. And the doctor said, 'You are right. You've been here for three days and today could have been your funeral. You see all those people out there waiting to see you? They could have been lining up for your funeral.' "