Weekly Feature

2013-10-09 / Lifestyles

Project HOPE sheds light on prescription drug abuse

It wasn’t supposed to be Michael Israel. The 20-year-old was a graduate of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and attended the University at Buffalo with aspirations of becoming an architect.

“He was an all-around good kid, and as a parent you never thought that this was going to affect you. We never thought of addiction,” said Michael’s father, Avi Israel.

Israel and his wife, Julie, found little reason to worry. After all, the hydrocodone that Michael used to alleviate his Crohn’s disease was prescribed by his doctor.

In December 2010, Michael sat down on Israel’s bed and told him he was addicted to his pain medicine. Though he reached out for help, he was unable to receive it in time.

On June 4, 2011, Israel was in the backyard when he heard a shot ring out from his son’s bedroom. Overwhelmed by his addiction, Michael had chosen to take his own life.

“When I kicked the door open, there was Michael — he was struggling to breathe. I held him, and he died,” said Israel.

Michael’s struggle with addiction is all too common. Each year, 15,000 people die from painkillers. More than half of abusers are between the ages of 12 and 25.

Project HOPE is sharing that statistic in the hopes it will soon be eliminated. The awareness and education initiative highlighting painkiller addiction and abuse is a communitywide effort by 54 different organizations, including BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse and Horizon Health Services, as well as pharmacies, higher learning institutions and media outlets.

Project HOPE’s methods of spreading information include a documentary, curriculum on painkiller abuse in middle and high schools, informational cards for pharmacies and doctors’ offices, and a website containing facts on painkiller addiction, along with ways to get help at www.painkillersKILL.org.

Israel believes that communitywide education is critical, especially since prescription drug abuse is becoming epidemic in the suburbs.

“The worst thing that I found out since Michael has passed away [was] our lack of knowledge,” he said.

Patricia McDonald refers to the nation’s prescription drug abuse crisis as “America’s dirty little secret.”

McDonald remembers constantly filling prescriptions for her daughter Adrianne’s back pain medicine.

“She was prescribed hydrocodone by her physician for two to three years,” she said, adding “He never ordered her any MRI, any CAT scan, any physical therapy.”

Yet one day, Adrianne’s doctor took her off painkillers without warning. Two days later, Adrianne went into the city to score heroin to help satisfy her addiction to hydrocodone.

“She had told me she was going to the gym,” McDonald said.

McDonald remembers Adrianne coming home and telling her she was going to take a nap.

When McDonald went to wake her a few hours later, she discovered Adrianne had died of a heroin overdose.

“The most dangerous time is when someone is going to try to stop [painkillers],” said Anne Constantino, president and CEO of Horizons Health Services, which offers drug addiction rehabilitation and mental health services.

Constantino said people suffering an opiate withdrawal experience intense cravings. This is not surprising, since painkillers have the same active ingredient as heroin.

In the past few years, Constantino said Horizons Health Services began noticing a disturbing trend among patients.

“In the past, we used to see kids that were misusing alcohol, marijuana, sometimes cocaine or periodically a designer drug,” she said. “What we started seeing proportionately was the majority of those young people using opiate drugs, starting with pills often and then ending up with heroin.”

The second disturbing trend Constantino saw was death.

“Young people were dying,” she said, adding, “These were young people that never actually even got into treatment. They would come once, and then we would hear that they overdosed and died.”

Constantino said it is a lack of fear that is drawing young adults to painkillers.

“They are totally not scared of the pills. They are in their parents’ medical cabinets, and teenagers get prescribed those kind of drugs,” said Constantino. She noted that student athletes are often given hydrocodone for injuries, as are patients who get their wisdom teeth removed.

“Our kids were prescribed into addiction; that’s what I call it. I don’t think that any of the doctors did it deliberately. It’s just the way the system is,” Israel said.

Dr. Richard Blondell said there is a lot of blame to go around — from doctors to pharmaceutical companies to insurance providers.

“Drugs are an inexpensive way to deal with the immediate problem. The system is set up for over-prescription,” said Blondell, a professor and vice president of addiction for the University at Buffalo’s Department of Family Medicine.

While Blondell did call some doctors “drug dealers in white coats,” he stressed that this is a minority in the medical field.

“I think the vast majority of doctors want to do the right thing and will do the right thing, but they need information,” Blondell said, noting that 20 years prior, doctors were chastised for not prescribing enough pain medicine.

Blondell, who serves on the board of directors for the American Board of Addiction Medicine, is among those working to inform doctors and their patients about the consequences of painkiller addiction.

The ABAM was recently awarded a $2 million grant to establish The National Center for Physician Training in Addiction Medicine in Buffalo, which Blondell will direct.

“We’re going to change the curriculum of addiction medicine doctors so that they are more oriented toward prevention in adolescents,” said Blondell, who added that the addiction specialists will train primary care physicians, who will in turn educate their patients.

Project HOPE is also educating doctors about painkiller abuse through continuing medical education conferences.

On Sept. 19, more than 260 medical professionals attended a CME conference called “The Opioid Analgesic Epidemic: Identifying and Preventing Prescription Drug Abuse.” A total of 125,000 informational brochures were distributed at the event for doctors and pharmacies to place in their waiting areas.

Constantino, who presented at the CME, encouraged doctors to get to know the treatment facilities in the area and develop a relationship with them.

“In Western New York, generally speaking, there are a variety of outpatient programs available, and that’s where people need to start as soon as possible,” Constantino said, adding that the outpatient counselor will help navigate the medical system for the patient and his or her family.

She said there is no “magic bullet” to cure addiction.

“Recovery is a process of change. It really requires change in all facets of somebody’s life,” she said, noting that this often includes professional counseling and a community based 12-step program.

Since those in the throes of addiction often feel helpless, Constantino said it often helps them to attend a rehabilitation center, such as Horizon, where patients can witness real-life success stories.

“You look at the courage of the people who come into treatment and change their life — and there are a lot of them out there. One thing that people get when they see that is they get hopeful,” said Constantino. “People do change their life. There is a ton of hope.”

For more facts on painkiller addiction and area treatment options, visit painkillersKILL.org or call 1-855-969-HOPE for 24-hour support.

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