In 2007, Dr. Faye Jamali broke her wrist. What happened in the next few months jeopardized her career as an anesthesiologist and made her understand pain in a new way.
As an emergency medical technician, Dakota Ayers has seen a lot of pain and illness, much of it related to opioid addiction. When he responds to calls, he's not there to judge.
In the late 1990s, Lisa Curtin's mother read about a new drug called Oxycontin, and then nothing was ever the same for Lisa or her family.
Jenny Beetz loved how heroin made her feel but she appreciates the stability of her life without it.
If Ted Stout had continued to follow the advice of his doctor, he might not be alive today. The prescribed opioids reduced the physical pain he suffered from Postherpetic Neuralgia -- until they made him much sicker. Then he took matters into his own hands.
Eric Whitaker understands the destructive patterns and habits that can rule life. And he's figured out a way to break his. He's clean and he's sharing his story.
Anne LeVeque's sister, Elisa, died from an overdose of carfentanil in 2016. "Unless each and every one of us talks about how this opioid crisis affects us all, openly and honestly, we are never going to conquer this evil."
Sibling death is so much harder than your parents, particularly if you’re middle-aged, your parents are elderly, they have a condition or disease, whatever, you know, you’re prepared for it. It’s in the natural order of things.
Having your younger sister die, isn’t.
It was August 1st, 2016. Got up, eight in the morning and found a text message, from an unknown number. It said, “Elisa is dead. Sorry.” I’m looking at this and there is this sense of unreality. Elisa is my younger sister, younger by four years. And so I called my niece, her daughter, who was sobbing.
My sister, Elisa, lived in Ohio at the time, near Akron. And it turned out that the text was from her boyfriend, Elisa’s boyfriend. And that she had died of a dose of carfentanil. My understanding is that its only use is in zoos, for very large animals, elephants. It’s a tranquilizer. There is no safe human dose.
The drug trade, the street drug trade, has changed considerably over the past couple of decades. Apparently it gives a dealer a great degree of street cred if some of their customers die, because it indicates that their product is so strong, it’s so powerful, you will get a high unlike any other. There is this element of risk. I can’t really, and probably ought not speak to any of the science of it, because I’m not a scientist. But that people who are prone to addiction also have the risk-taking gene. And so they want the bigger high, the better high. If this dealer’s customers, if some of them have died as a result, it indicates that his product is very strong. So it’s basically advertising.
I immediately got in the car and drove to Ohio to help my niece, who was 25 at the time. She was an adult, living somewhere else.
We had thought Elisa had been clean for a while. After our mother’s death the previous year, she had gone into rehab, again, and then had a bumpy time in the halfway house and was kicked out of there. And so her options were incredibly limited. She had lived in Ohio previously. She moved back to Ohio. She told me she was living with a friend. And she referred to it as a house. I later found out it was a small trailer and it was just so full of trash and junk and cigarette smoke and garbage. Everything. It was just horrifying. And you wonder how does this – how does this happen?
She had estranged herself from everyone else in our family through her abuse of our relationships, including probably the worst thing she did was when my mother was moved into hospice, she went and drained my mother’s bank account. You know, I mean that’s that’s pretty horrifying to do. What’s doing this is the disease. It’s the addiction. It’s not who she is, deep down. That’s a really hard thing to internalize and there’s lot of anger, disappointment – all those things.
After my sister’s death, we had a gathering and it was mostly her daughter’s friends but also her friends, at an Episcopal church in Akron. And the woman that she shared the trailer with attended – Beth. Beth talked about being the daughter of a rabbi -- and our dad was an Episcopal priest -- and how they would talk about being “PK’s” which is -- PK is preacher’s kids. And I, I thought to myself, I was just floored. I thought, how, how is it that the daughter of a rabbi, the daughter of an Episcopal priest end up in this God-awful junky trailer, using the worst drugs imaginable in this existence that is not anything you or I could ever imagine, you know, in our worst nightmares.
Dealing with the fact that it was the drug overdose, it was addiction, we’ve really tried to be -- at least I’ll say, I have tried to be --as open as possible about that because I feel strongly that the more people keep things like that a secret, the less we’ll be able to really deal with it as a society. If lots of us can say, “This happened to me. This happened to my family, and we need to deal with this,” within the family, within our society, within the medical and pharmaceutical industry -- we need to deal with this globally too.
It affects everybody. No exceptions. You know, there are no exceptions for, you know, if your dad’s a doctor or your mom is a lawyer or whatever, it’s not going to make any distinction. It’s, it’s insidious.
I’m Anne LeVeque and this is my story.
Andy Viner Seiler was prescribed opioids by his doctor to deal with pain. He was hooked and his doctor wasn't helpful.
Withdrawal is the worst.
I mean, here I have an illness and the pain is just unbelievable. And then I find getting off opioids is worse than that.
It all began in 2004. I got hit with something called Ramsey Hunt Syndrome. I call it the evil cousin of shingles. It’s the same virus. Basically, all you have to have done to get it is to have had chicken pox when you were a kid. But it’s rare enough that nobody’s doctor ever diagnoses it correctly. That’s what happened to me. So I got sicker and I got sicker. This thing attacks the nerves in your face. It looks like Bell’s palsy. It feels like – oh my God, it’s nerve damage. It’s insane pain.
Now the doctor, the same doctor who misdiagnosed me, gave me a whole mess of meds, antivirals and things, and he threw Oxycontin actually, into the mix.
And after awhile, I didn’t know why I was sticking to him so I went to a specialist neurologist. Unfortunately, I was seeing that neurologist for more than ten years. She would put me on higher and higher does of opioids. And I didn’t even know what they were. And I remember that I’d been on them for several years, and it started to dawn on me that opioids might be the same thing as narcotics.
There was no publicity about these drugs at the time, and in fact she told me they were non-addictive, which is what the manufacturers said at the beginning.
But I was just beginning to figure this all out, and I said to my neurologist, “Is there any difference between these drugs you have me on and heroin?”
And she said, “Oh, it’s totally different from heroin. When you buy heroin on the street, you never know what quality you’re getting. And this is pure. This is good stuff.” And I’m like oh no. And that was when I first realized I was in big trouble.
They had me on an enormous amount of Oxycontin and Percocet around the clock. This went on for thirteen or fourteen years. Every once in a while, I would realize that they weren’t doing a very good job compared to what they’d done before so I would want to get on more. And she’d prescribe more.
It was only in the last couple of years, things changed so much. All of a sudden there is heat coming down on the doctors for prescribing this stuff. So, all of a sudden my neurologist -- she just totally changes her tune. But she doesn’t just change her tune. She starts to rewrite history. And it was something that my wife and I both noticed. She suddenly started saying things like, “Well, that’s why I’ve been trying to get you off these drugs bcause they’re not good for you.” And it’s like, you’ve never said that before.
By this point, I was on such a high dose -- because your body adapts and it starts tolerating a higher and higher amount to just do the same thing. And what eventually happened was we managed to immediately lose an entire huge vial of Oxycontin as soon as we got the prescription filled -- which we later found. But, while we couldn’t find it, I mean all of a sudden I didn’t have any, and my neurologist just freaked out. She became convinced that somebody was selling them or something was going on, and she wouldn’t prescribe anymore, probably because she couldn’t prescribe anymore, but I don’t know.
She just fired me as a patient. She gave me a referral to a pain clinic. But she didn’t follow up with me or anything. And I guess what most people would do is immediately go on the street and try to buy heroin or something. I mean that -- I could see exactly how that would happen.
But, I just realized I’ve got to detox myself and I’m not going to go to a clinic. I’m just going to do it. But it took a long time and it was horrifying.
You’re incredibly hot and then you’re incredibly cold. And I mean like you can put on all the clothes you’ve got, and cover yourself in blankets, and you’re still freezing. And sometimes your head is sweating uncontrollably and you’re unbelievably hot in your head but your body is cold. And you’re just in horrible, nagging, gnawing pain.
It also does a horrendous thing to your digestive system. When I first got on these drugs, I got so constipated I thought I was going to die. But when you’re getting off the drugs, of course you have the opposite situation. I mean, this is disgusting this part of it but diarrhea isn’t even the right word for it. I mean it’s just about a hundred times worse. And it doesn’t stop. I mean even after you finally wean yourself off the drugs, it lasts for another month.
I started about the week before Christmas. I did not completely wean myself off till sometime in February. But I do feel better than I did when I was on the opioids.
The other thing that kills me about it is how expensive it was, because insurance just paid for a very small amount. And boy, would I like all that money back again.
It was like climbing down a totally vertical rock cliff. So you’re terrified. And you’re working your way down, climbing down and climbing down all day long for a really long day. At the very end of it, you look down, and the ground isn’t any closer. That’s what it was like.
I’m Andy Seiler and this is my story.
Bob Nicklas underwent a complicated surgery to treat his lung cancer. Fentanyl was the only drug that brought him real pain relief. His doctors were vigilant about getting him off the drugs as soon as he could manage it.
Throughout my life, I’ve had a high tolerance for pain. I once played volleyball for two hours on a fractured ankle.
The doctor said you’re probably going to have some considerable pain. It gave new meaning for me to what considerable pain was.
Back in 2014, midyear, I developed shoulder pain, the type of shoulder pain you get maybe from lifting the wrong way. I went to an orthopedist. He suggested physical therapy. Went through physical therapy off and on for several months. It did not get better. Finally my wife said, “Look, there’s something wrong here.” We went to an emergency room, and within an hour the doctor came out and said, “I’ve never learned how to dothis any other way but directly – you have lung cancer. “
I had advanced stage three cancer.
In December of that year, I had what they call a lobectomy. So I had the upper left part of my left lung taken out, three ribs, various associated muscles, nerves. It was a seven-hour surgery. It was pretty extensive. To this day I remember waking up in the recovery room, my wife Terri was there, so was my son Tim and my daughter-in-law, Karlee.
The first words that I remember out of my mouth were “Please someone help me with the pain.” I have never experienced pain like I had.
For the next what seemed like a lifetime, but it was over the next half hour to an hour, they played with a combination of painkillers which included fentanyl, oxycodone, a nerve medication gabapentin, and morphine. Finally, I felt like I was drifting off. The cocktail had begun to do its work.
I was in the hospital for six days. Once I got home I remained on gabapentin, fentanyl, and either oxycodone or Oxycontin -- whichever was doing the most effective job.
For me, fentanyl was probably the most effective. I was on a patch. I can’t remember exactly what the dose was but the patch was changed every three days. And I was on that for probably a good six weeks to two months after I was done with surgery. I still had pain throughout the day. Now some of that pain was just the surgical pain of having an incision, which went from the bottom of my neck down to below my shoulder blades. I could barely comfortably lean back. And that lasted for several weeks, even with being on the cocktail I was on. The fentanyl, though, was the most effective at keeping the pain down to a manageable level. And it was also the last drug I went off of.
Thankfully, I was at Johns Hopkins, and the doctors there basically, from the day of post surgery, were encouraging that I should take the drugs for as long as I felt I needed them but to be aware that the goal was to go off of them. Which was I think an important mindset because the pain could be really severe at times. But I was committed to try to go off of them in as rapid and judicious a way as I could.
I was a smoker. I was addicted to tobacco. So I had some firsthand knowledge of what addiction can do to you. I was in pain because of my addiction to tobacco.
My father was a doctor. He was in practice with someone who became addicted to heroin. And when my dad discovered it personally – I mean he walked in on his partner injecting heroin, and he left within the month. My dad was the one who – he would try to prevent people from becoming addicted. I mean, he knew the power of the drugs that he was at times providing. And I was bound and determined not to become addicted to painkillers.
As I was discharged from the hospital, I was given instructions that when I was ready, I could follow to slowly get off each of the drugs, and a suggestion as to which drug should go first, which should go second, which should go third. And the staff would regularly check in with me, and I had to check in with them. And they’d say, “Do you think you’re ready?” And at a certain point, I said, “Yeah, I’m ready. I want to try to start going off.”
I didn’t experience any withdrawal. And I think it was because of the phasing. My doctors had a good sense of which one to go first, second, third, and a timeline to do it.
I have been a lucky person. A very lucky person.
I’m Bob Nicklas and this is my story.
Captain Tyrone Collington is the commander of Takoma Park, Maryland's patrol division. His #1 mission is to save lives. Sometimes that entails the use of a powerful tool called Narcan.
Well, our number one priority from a police perspective is to save lives, and that’s what we want to do.
For our department, there are a number of us, including myself, that are trained to administer a counter drug treatment that you can give someone who you suspect to be overdosing, and what it does is it knocks off the drugs and revives the person, brings them back around. Even if it may not be an opiate, it’s harmless. It won’t cause any other type of medical effects.
Seeing people just strung out, unconscious, unresponsive, eyes may be rolled back in the head, shallow breathing, sometime they may be clammy, cold – it’s troubling because at this point you don’t know how long they’ve been unconscious, you don’t know what drug they are under. So you don’t really know how to begin administering any type of resuscitation or first aid. And you have to be careful that you don’t confuse that for some type of diabetic episode.
Sometime we get the calls from someone saying a friend has overdosed. And we have had anonymous calls where people have been left in bathtubs and it’s so sad. They don’t want to remain on the scene because they don’t want to be involved. So they’ll put the person in the cold water and left them which puts them in even more danger because they could drown. So we have to get them out of the tub and them we’ll immediately administer the Narcan drug, two squirts, one in each nostril, and that will within there to five minutes start to revive the person. To see them come back you feel like you’re helping this person live, you’ve just saved someone’s life. But I have been on scenes where I’ve seen the same person in the same state, unconscious, and you just ask yourself, you know, how many more times are you going to be able to come here to save this person before one time it’s too late.
I’ve encountered many different age groups, different colors, different race. You have a lot of professionals, students. Sometime when I see them I’m surprised, especially if it’s someone that I’ve dealt with within the community. And so I always say, you know, you never know what a person is going through, what demons they are dealing with within themselves. It’s a sickness. It’s an illness, and it’s important for us to educate ourselves, educate the community on, you know, how can we prevent this, what signs to looks for, and how to proceed with trying to get them treatment.
I’ve met a lot of good people who have had whatever setbacks and I’ve had conversations with them like, how did you get here? One incident that really stick in my mind was an individual that told me he was using for 25 years. And I asked him how do you continue to look at your body just deteriorate? And he said, you know, sometime you just -- you need it. It’s a sickness that we’re dealing with. In our mind, we believe that we can’t function without it.
So when I see people on the street using, immediately I want to refer them to like some type of health and human services. I want to get them to talk to someone. There’s always alternatives to incarceration.
Not all the people that use drugs are bad people. You know, sometimes, you know, they have chronic pain, like back problems, you know, any kind of problem. They get medication, hard narcotics, and become addicted to them. That doesn’t make them a criminal. So it’s more important for me to try to get them help, wean them off the drug, than put them in some kind of confinement. You’re taking people away from their families, you’re taking them away from their jobs, you know, you’re taking them out of the community. If it had not been for this sickness, they would be productive citizens. These are someone’s, you know, wives, sisters, brothers, daughters -- loved ones.
Sometimes they just need treatment. You know if you really want to get to the root problem, let’s get the person some help, especially if we’re not catching them breaking in the house or anything like that, we just find them using on the street. I can come up and have that conversation, like, “What got you here?” That’s important to me. Let’s find out what really happened as opposed to “This is illegal, I need to take you to jail.” Because that’s not going to solve anything. You’ll go to jail, you’ll get back out, you’ll use again. But if I can help you to find some kind of medical treatment, I’m willing to do that, to save you, save your family, save your life!
Just saving one person means I’ve done my job but there are a lot more out there to be saved.
I’m Capt. Tyrone Collington and this is my story.