Heroin expands its deadly reach to affluent suburbs, small towns (+video)

VIDEO: The bonds of addiction

A heroin addict's mother and grandmother must endure his painful transformation.
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A heroin addict's mother and grandmother must endure his painful transformation.

Julie Love remembers the day she looked in her son’s Jeep six years ago. In the center console, she found needles and a spoon.

Her son – a 23-year-old, white, middle-class, former football star from a small Kansas town – was using heroin.

At the time, Love knew her son, Tad, was addicted to a prescription painkiller he had received after knee surgery.

“I thought I was still dealing with OxyContin, but when I brought it up to my brother, he said, ‘Julie, he’s using heroin.’

“I said, ‘No he isn’t.’

“He said, ‘Go look in his Jeep.’

“I will never forget that day, because I found the needles – I found the proof,” she said. “I had to see it for myself to believe he was doing it.”

I found the needles – I found the proof. I had to see it for myself to believe he was doing it.

Julie Love, a mother whose 28-year old son is addicted to heroin

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says heroin is now an epidemic in the U.S.

And heroin users, it says, are increasingly white, young adults from well-off families in suburbs and small towns.

And like Tad, 94 percent of heroin users first become addicted to prescription painkillers, according to 2014 rehab survey results from JAMA Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed journal.

The increase in heroin addiction mirrors the increase in the use of prescription painkillers, particularly opioids – a medication that replicates the feeling of opium.

Sales of prescription opioid medication have increased 300 percent since 1999, even though Americans did not report an overall change in their amount of pain during that time, according to the CDC.

Health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers in 2012, according to the CDC.

That’s enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills.

259 millionNumber of prescriptions doctors wrote for opioid painkillers in 2012 – enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills.

When doctors restricted Tad’s access to painkillers, he switched to heroin. It’s cheaper, easier to find and provides a similar high.

OxyContin for pain

Tad was born in 1987, played high school football and graduated from Conway Springs High in 2006.

Love described her son as a genuinely good guy. He loved helping others, volunteering at homeless shelters and the Special Olympics. He had a sense of humor, was responsible and loved to spend time with his grandmother and family.

Love said she thinks he drank in high school but didn’t use hard drugs.

She found out Tad smoked weed when he was around 18 to 20 years old, so she sent him to a counselor.

After Tad graduated from high school, Love moved to New York and contracted for the Office of Professional Medical Conduct – a state agency in charge of monitoring doctors.

One of the main issues her office investigated was the way doctors prescribed painkillers. She said she saw the spread of heroin abuse from opioids first-hand in the Northeast, but viewed it as a problem mostly confined to the East and West coasts.

Back in Wichita, Tad had a full-time job at a company that sold Caterpillar equipment. He rented an apartment.

When he stepped off a piece of equipment at work, he aggravated an old football knee injury and tore his meniscus.

He had surgery through workers’ compensation. That’s when his doctor first prescribed him OxyContin for pain.

OxyContin is a highly addictive schedule II opioid. Schedule II prescription drugs – such as hydrocodone, fentanyl and morphine – are tightly controlled because of the risk of addiction.

Click here for an interactive map from the CDC that shows county-level overdose data.

But after the surgery, the pain persisted. He kept using OxyContin and Love noticed he was becoming dependent. He sought a second opinion about his knee and found out his original doctor had missed a torn ACL. A year had passed since his meniscus surgery by the time he got his ACL surgery.

Love moved back to Kansas from New York before the second surgery to help Tad. By then Tad had moved in with Love’s mother, Ruth Johnson, in Haysville. Love’s brother also lived with Johnson at the time.

A heroin addict's mother and grandmother must endure his painful transformation.

“I could already tell he was overusing it, but probably because his ACL was still torn,” Love said about Tad’s original addiction to OxyContin. “I think he was self-medicating for pain, and it progressively got worse.”

When doctors began to limit his access to OxyContin, before the second surgery, Tad switched to heroin, Love said.

As in the rest of the country, heroin is cheap in Wichita.

Troy Derby, assistant special agent in charge for the office of the Drug Enforcement Administration that oversees Kansas, said a gram of heroin in Wichita costs $55 to $170.

For a first-time user, a gram can contain up to 100 doses.

Rehab, relapse

Love spent the next five years trying to save her son.

Tad went to rehab for the first time in September 2011. He lost his job by 2012.

He would go to inpatient rehab three more times, but relapsed each time.

Insurance paid for treatment one and a half times. Love paid out-of-pocket two and a half times – leaving her $22,000 in debt.

“As long as he’s willing to try, then I will do it,” she said. “Because it’s like I’ve explained to him, paying for a funeral is going to be just as expensive.”

Tad lived with Love on and off until he again moved in with Johnson – his grandmother – six months ago. Both Love and Johnson have kicked out Tad several times for lying and stealing.

Tad once took Love’s car for two weeks without her knowledge, she said.

“Tad at 21 was more responsible than he is at 28 because of his addiction,” she said. “He had his own place, he had a job.”

Tad at 21 was more responsible than he is at 28 because of his addiction. He had his own place, he had a job.

Julie Love

Tad once told his mom that he can tell sometimes that he has injected too much heroin. But he can’t stop. Tad, who is now in rehab, did not talk for this story.

At one point, Love became so exasperated by the situation, she asked him to write his own obituary.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t face the reality that my son could die today,” she said.

In November, Love said, Tad stole $500 from the bank account of his 80-year-old grandmother, who lives on a fixed income.

When Johnson and Love confronted him about the money, Tad agreed to go to treatment once again.

That’s when Love reached a breaking point of her own.

Waiting for treatment

Tad didn’t have health insurance and Love couldn’t afford to pay out-of-pocket again.

She called daily to rehab centers around Kansas, but the centers told her Tad would have to wait two to three months for a state-funded spot.

That’s because the state doesn’t have enough money to pay for all the people who need treatment.

The state gives money to rehab centers that provide treatment for people who can’t pay for it on their own, or through insurance, said Stacy Chamberlain, director of addiction services for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services.

The state uses federal money to pay for treatment, giving pregnant women and IV drug users priority.

The state has no idea how many people are waiting for treatment, or how long the wait is, she said.

She also said she doesn’t know if anyone has overdosed or died while waiting for treatment because the state doesn’t compare the names of people who overdose with the names of those waiting for treatment.

1.3Number of drug-related deaths in Kansas per 100,000 12- to 25-year-olds from 1999 to 2001

5.9Number of drug-related deaths in Kansas per 100,000 12- to 25-year-olds from 2011 to 2013

Overdose death rates quadrupled in Kansas from 1999 to 2013 for 12- to 24-year-olds, according to a study by Trust for America’s Health released late last year. The study included both prescription and illicit drugs.

Only Wyoming saw a greater jump than Kansas.

Nonetheless, Kansas’ overdose rate is below the national average.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 19 people in Kansas died from heroin overdoses in 2014. The group cautioned that heroin deaths are often under-reported.

Sarah Fischer, prevention program director for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, said underage drinking and marijuana use are bigger issues in Kansas than drug overdoses.

“We’ve got a lot of issues on our plate, and it doesn’t necessarily always rise to the top,” Fischer said.

Harold Casey is CEO of the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas, which serves indigent clients in 29 counties.

He said most state-funded patients receive two or three weeks of inpatient services after waiting two to three months to receive it. A full month, he said, is rare.

“My staff are telling me this week that they’re calling and some providers are not placing people on their waiting list because they’re so far out,” he said.

Tad went to four inpatient rehab clinics. Each would treat him for only 30 days, which Love says is less than adequate for a heroin user.

“Had one of these treatment programs kept him for 90 days, maybe we wouldn’t be here right now,” she said.

Timothy Scanlan, a retired medical doctor who specialized in addiction in Wichita, said 30-day treatment became a standard during the 1970s, which is when most insurance companies set a 30-day max for inpatient treatment.

There is some research that says the longer the treatment, the better the outcome. But there just aren’t many places that provide anything longer than 30 days. It’s kind of a Catch-22.

Timothy Scanlan, retired medical doctor

“There is some research that says the longer the treatment, the better the outcome,” Scanlan said. “But there just aren’t many places that provide anything longer than 30 days. It’s kind of a Catch-22.”

‘Where were the parents?’

Obituaries of 20-somethings who fall victim to heroin have dotted newspapers across the country over the past several years.

“I don’t want to be another picture on a page that we lost another one,” Love said. “Because that’s where we’re headed.”

Her voice choked as she talked. “I’ve spent the last four years just trying to get my son to survive,” she said.

On Thursday, Tad arrived at a six-month treatment program in Florida, paid partially through his health insurance. Love paid $3,000, adding to the $22,000 she was already in debt.

Love is hopeful this will be his last visit.

She’s mad at the pharmaceutical companies, disappointed in the state and now wants to help educate other parents.

She said families might underestimate how easy it is for their children to get hooked.

322Kansans who died from drug overdoses in 2014

385Kansans who died from traffic accidents in 2014

“Many fingers get pointed at the addict’s family,” she said. People often ask, where were the parents when all of this was going on?

“Honestly, they were sitting at the dinner table together, helping with homework, attending sports events with those kids, so very much present, and it still happens,” she said.

The friends Tad uses with are from other middle-class families, she said.

“These are the kids with every opportunity,” she said. “It’s white, middle- to upper-class kids that are getting hooked on it, and logically it doesn’t make sense.

“Every single one, he probably knows since Bible school. He’s known all those kids pretty much their whole life. Conway Springs is a small, tight-knit community.”

And her story epitomizes the drug’s cultural shift.

“When I was in high school, there was a distinct line. There were the people who did drugs in one group, and the people who didn’t in another, and the two shall never meet. Now it’s not like that.

“Now it’s the popular kids doing drugs – and hard drugs,” she said. “We’re not talking about smoking pot, we’re talking about heroin, OxyContin and pain medication.”

Now it’s the popular kids doing drugs – and hard drugs. We’re not talking about smoking pot, we’re talking about heroin, OxyContin and pain medication.

Julie Love

Gabriella Dunn: 316-268-6400, @gabriella_dunn

Resources for parents and loved ones

▪ For help with substance abuse problems, call 800-622-4357.

▪ To receive an assessment, contact the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas: 316-267-3825, 731 N. Water, www.saack.org/.

▪ For definitions of treatment services around the state, and to find a directory of providers, visit: www.kdads.ks.gov/commissions/behavioral-health/consumers-and-families/services-and-programs/substance-use-disorder-treatment-services.

▪ For questions about addiction services in Kansas, call Stacy Chamberlain at 785-296-0649 or e-mail her at stacy.chamberlain@kdads.ks.gov.

Advice from an addict’s mom

Julie Love, whose 28-year-old son is addicted to heroin, says she never could have guessed this epidemic would reach her family. Although she says no family could truly be prepared to handle the emotional and physical hardships of heroin addiction, she says the best advice is to talk.

▪ Talk to your kids early. If you’re starting in high school, it’s probably too late.

▪ Talking about drugs won’t encourage them to try drugs, so don’t shy away from the conversation.

▪ Don’t judge your kids for what they tell you. If they feel judged, they’ll likely evade questions and hide information.

▪ Open communication, she says, is key: “I would hate to have a parent find out the first time when they overdose,” Love said.

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