On the day of the race, Megan Grunlund Wohltjen wasn’t sure what to feel. She was excited. She was anxious. She was grieving. It was the 2021 New York Marathon, and she was running in support of Partnership to End Addiction. She had raised more than $4,000, and now all that was left to do was run the race.
A year and a half before, in March 2020, Megan had lost her brother, Sam, to a drug overdose. He was 27 years old.
“One day, when I was feeling really down, I was on Facebook and this memory popped up,” she said. “It was from when I ran the Queens 10k. My brother had written this comment about how proud he was of me. And then I saw that this group was looking for runners for the marathon, and I thought the timing was perfect.”
Megan had first started running because of Sam. They grew up together in Great Kills, a community on Staten Island. Sam was a star pitcher and an all-around athlete. Megan was a cheerleader but not much of a runner. Eventually, Sam convinced her to start jogging, and running became one of the main ways that they spent time together.
Throughout his teenage years and into early adulthood, Sam struggled with addiction. He entered treatment for the first time when he was 14, and he went to more rehabilitation programs than Megan can remember. “You have really high highs, and really low lows,” Megan said. “He had good clean times, but he was just not able to maintain his sobriety long-term.”
Growing up in that household helped to inspire Megan’s career in youth advocacy. She originally joined Children’s Aid as a case planner for youth in foster care in 2013. Since 2017, she’s been working as an education specialist, helping to identify and advocate the needs for Staten Island kids who are at risk.
“My experiences are part of the reason that I have this job,” Megan said. “My grandmother always said that I would grow up to be someone who helped other people. I definitely always felt that. Deep down, there’s been something inside of me that wanted to be part of the solution.”
When Sam died, Megan learned even more about the way that drug addiction was affecting her community, and our country. Sam was one of nearly 100,000 people who died of drug overdoses in the United States in 2020, an increase of nearly 30% from 2019. New York City was home to more than 2,000 of the victims.
“It’s a tragedy, not just for the tens of thousands of people who died, but also for the many more family members and loved ones who have been affected,” she said. “I didn’t really understand the magnitude of the problem until I lost Sam. I can’t go back and change anything, but I’m trying to do better now.”
In addition to running the Marathon, she has shared her family’s story with the local newspaper, the Staten Island Advance, and she recently spoke at a press conference with public and private leaders in support of a new opioid intervention program. The Secure Futures Project aims to use artificial intelligence to identify people at high risk for overdose deaths.
Alongside former Congressman Max Rose, CEO of Staten Island University Hospital Brahim Ardolic, and District Attorney Michael McMahon, she spoke about the impact that Sam had had on her in life, and in death.
“While I am not a medical professional, I am a sister who lived through the horrors of the tremendously overlooked and misunderstood opioid crisis devastating our community and nation,” she said. “Action needs to be taken about the forgotten epidemic in the forgotten borough of Staten Island and throughout New York City. It is too late for my brother and too late for my shattered family, but it is not too late for the many people who need help.”
Megan’s grief is still raw. When she is feeling low, she likes to go for a run. She also likes to lean on the support her brother provided her during his life. “He always wanted to see people do well,” she said. “He pushed people to be their best selves. He’s still pushing me to this day.”