SAN RAMON -- Blindsided by the death of her 21-year-old son, Joey, from a combination of prescription drugs and alcohol in 2009, April Rovero has since made it her mission to help other parents avoid the nightmare she endured.
For the past three years, few individuals have done more than Rovero to educate students, parents and lawmakers on the dangers of such prescription drugs as OxyContin, Vicodin and Ritalin. In 2010, Rovero, 60, founded the nonprofit National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse to stem the rise in deaths and raise awareness of the problem nationwide.
"The bottom line for us is saved lives," Rovero said. "We want to cut down on the death rate and absolutely save families from the disease of addiction."
Joey Rovero grew up as a good student and athlete, playing football at California High in San Ramon. He moved on to Arizona State University, where he joined a fraternity and was well-liked on campus.
"He was one of those kids who would light up a room," April Rovero recalled.
After his fraternity was booted off campus, Joey moved into apartments "teeming with prescription drug abuse," Rovero said, and many of his frat brothers were taking pills.
With friends, Joey visited a Los Angeles-area physician, Hsiu-Ying "Lisa" Tseng, an alleged "dirty doctor" accused of prescribing drugs to patients who didn't need them.
"Joey saw her and walked out with 90 Oxycodone (a synthetic opiate), 90 Somas (a muscle relaxant), and 30 Xanax for anxiety," Rovero said. "That was the deadly combination he was given."
Planning to go home for winter break, Joey -- a senior five months from graduation -- celebrated the end of finals with friends. They partied late, and by the afternoon of Dec. 18, 2009, Joey was dead.
Back in San Ramon, the news came as a shock to his family, who said Joey never had a history of drug use. Toxicology reports showed he was barely over the legal limit for alcohol and had low levels of Xanax and OxyContin in his bloodstream.
"The fact that he died with so little in his system was a wake-up call," Rovero said. "We had a wonderful son. ... He was a poster child for 'this could happen to anybody.'"
After Joey's death, Rovero tried to learn as much as she could about the drugs and their potential dangers. She was amazed by what she found -- or more accurately, didn't find.
"No agencies were talking about it," she said. "Prescription drug abuse didn't seem to be on anyone's radar screen."
Rovero felt she needed to form a nonprofit with a national presence, and the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse was born. In March 2010, she met with Joey's friends and fellow students at Arizona State, as well as the school's dean of students and the director of the on-campus health system, to discuss the problem.
The university asked Rovero to help design a prescription drug curriculum targeted at high-risk groups. She has since spoken to students at Arizona State and other campuses, and has brought programs to schools in the San Ramon Valley.
As president of the coalition, Rovero has pushed lawmakers for tougher prescription drug legislation. She is working with Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, on SB809, which would upgrade the state's CURES database, a prescription drug-monitoring program for doctors and pharmacies.
"I am lucky to call April Rovero both a friend and a constituent," DeSaulnier said in an email. "She has been instrumental in bringing national attention to the prescription drug epidemic."
In 2011, Rovero testified before Congress at a Senate hearing on drug abuse. In March of this year, she organized a rally at the state Capitol and spoke before the Medical Board of California, urging for more work in investigating doctors accused of overprescribing.
Rovero often puts in 18-hour days between the organization and her part-time job. She works into the early morning hours, crafting presentations and talking to other parents who have lost children to prescription drugs.
"I have no boundaries," Rovero said. "It's whatever it takes to get the job done."
Her tireless effort won the praise of Bob Pack, a Danville Internet executive whose two children were killed by a driver impaired by prescription drugs and alcohol in 2003. He lauded Rovero for her "doggedly successful" legislative work.
"She's a very determined person and she gets after the state and national leaders to hear her and gets them to do something about it," Pack said. "I commend April for being out there on the front lines to build that awareness to make those big changes."
Rovero said she wants to stomp out myths of prescription drugs being safer than street drugs, and educate youths on the criminal implications of sharing pills.
"It takes its toll in a horrible way," Rovero said. "Most people don't make it through."
The doctor Joey Rovero visited, Tseng, was charged in 2012 with second-degree murder in connection with Rovero's death and those of two other California men. She is in jail awaiting trial.
While Rovero warns of shady doctors, she said parents don't need to look far to start taking action.
"Go into your medicine cabinets, take a look at anything that could be abused," she said. "Lock your medications up or take them to a drop-off center and get rid of them."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
Hometown: San Ramon
Claim to fame: Founder and president of the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse, an advocate for tougher legislation regarding prescription drugs and for investigating doctors accused of overprescribing. The coalition includes groups such as Team Esteem, the Discovery Counseling Center in Danville, Axis Community Health, and the San Ramon Valley Community Against Substance Abuse. She networks with organizations nationwide.
Quote: "We're starting to have a community conversation on prescription drugs that wasn't there three years ago. We have a lot of work to do ... but now there is a conversation and I know the work we've done has had an impact."
Details: For more information on the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse, visit ncapda.org. Rovero also works with the Medicine Abuse Project, an initiative aimed at preventing 500,000 teens from abusing prescribed drugs within five years. For more, visit medicineabuseproject.org.
Hometown Heroes, a partnership between Bay Area News Group-East Bay and Comcast, celebrates people in the Bay Area who make a difference in their communities. Read about a new Hometown Hero every other week and watch the program on Comcast On Demand at Channel One-Get Local-Hometown Heroes. Do you know a Hometown Hero? Let us know about the work they do at HometownHeroes@bayareanewsgroup.com.
On the RISE
A new report released by www.drugfree.org and MetLife on April 23 shows that nearly one in four teens has abused prescription drugs at least once -- a 33 percent increase over the past five years. For the full report, visit www.drugfree.org.