Jay Romanelli isn’t shy about the fact that he has technically already died. Sitting on the back patio of his home in Vancouver, Washington with a vape pen in his hand and a small cloud of vapor hanging over him that smells like a sweet berry, one can clearly see the scar on his sternum underneath the tank top that he’s wearing in the summer heat.
Anyone who has seen the scar feels compelled to ask how a seemingly healthy 30-year-old man came to have open heart surgery. Those with the courage to ask are met with a blunt answer that usually takes them aback.
“I did a lot of heroin,” Romanelli says, with a small smile that betrays the seriousness of the words.
Born and raised in Newtown, Romanelli had an All-American upbringing. His father was a librarian at the local middle school. His mother worked for an insurance company. In high school he made friends and attended parties. He explored alcohol and marijuana surrounded by peers learning about life through the same machination.
After briefly attending college at the University of Colorado Romanelli dropped out and made his way to the ski resort town of Breckenridge. It was there that he began the march that led him to an operating theater where doctors struggled to repair the damage to his heart valves by years of heroin abuse.
“I was serving and bartending at the time, so I would be making the money I needed every night to go home and just get high.”
Romanelli said he continued this pattern until one night he, like so many others, overdosed. Friends managed to get him to the hospital, where he died on the operating table twice as doctors worked.
Still, after he awoke in his hospital bed the only thing on his mind was getting high. “They had me on a morphine drip for the pain,” said Romanelli, “but I would usually lie and say I was hurting just to get more morphine.”
His parents appeared at the hospital shortly afterward. Romanelli credits them with saving his life.
“As soon as I was ready to be moved they packed up all my shit and took me out of Breck.”
His parents brought him to Vancouver, where they helped him get into a rehabilitation program and monitored his progress.
He enrolled in a land surveying program at Clark College and got a job bartending at a local sports bar.
Today, more than six years after nearly dying, Romanelli works for a local surveying company. He will be finishing his degree in the fall.
No longer living with his parents, who have both moved to Olympia, he has surrounded himself with friends who are aware of his past struggles and continue to support him.
When asked about the drug use Romanelli is as blunt as ever, “yeah I miss heroin, you can’t be an addict and not miss it,” he said touching the scar on his chest, “but I don’t need it anymore to enjoy my life.”