Rising Overdose Deaths Hallmark of a Heroin Epidemic

From the early days of opium to the modern age of prescription painkillers, people and opiates have had a long and tumultuous relationship. Although prescription drug abuse is one of the main health concerns in modern-day America, the rise in abuse of drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin is fueling another epidemic: addiction to heroin. In states like Pennsylvania, the rise in heroin overdoses isn’t escaping the notice of emergency departments of local hospitals. Stories like that of Anthony Perez—who died at age 23 from a heroin overdose—drive the point home, and push us to ask serious questions about how we can prevent such tragic deaths.

Surge in Heroin Use

Across the country, heroin use doubled in the five years from 2007 and 2012. Pennsylvania is the third-highest state for heroin use, with an estimated 40,000 users, and young people between the ages of 20 and 44 are more likely to die from heroin than from car accidents. Lancaster County is one of the areas hardest-hit by the rise in heroin abuse. Emergency departments have seen a notable increase in heroin overdose cases, with Lancaster General Hospital going from 43 cases two years ago to 82 last year, with over 162 expected by the end of the next fiscal year. In addition to the increase in overdose cases, authorities are noticing an increase in the bulk amounts of heroin making their way into the state. As a result of all of these issues, the state has allowed addicts, their families and first responders to carry naloxone (Narcan), a heroin overdose antidote with the potential to save lives.

Anthony’s Story

Anthony Perez grew up on a beautiful street in Mount Joy with his mother and his stepfather. Stacy, his mother, commented: “I felt like we were a team. Like I always had to stick up for him”—although his stepfather did a great job of raising him too, by all accounts. However, fairly early on Anthony started experimenting with marijuana and alcohol, and by the time he left high school, he’d moved on to cocaine. Before long he’d started taking heroin, and that was the drug that consumed the last two years of his life. At first, Anthony enjoyed snorting, smoking and shooting up, and he even managed to have a girlfriend and keep his job. He thought Jessica, his girlfriend, would love heroin as much as he did, and injected the drug into her arm when she was too afraid to do it herself. It wasn’t long before both of their lives revolved around the drug, and they took to lying, stealing and cheating to maintain their addictions. Jessica was able to quit while she was pregnant with their son Gage, but after he was born the two settled back into their habit. At one point, Jessica thought she’d overdosed in the back of her car, and Anthony had to throw cold water on her and slap her in order to bring her back to consciousness. At this point, he started carrying Narcan with him that he’d bought off the street. It wasn’t long before he had to use it to bring a friend back from the brink of overdose. That friend carried on using, regardless, and so did Jessica and Anthony. “It had such a pull. I tried to steal the necklace off my own mother’s neck,” Jessica said. Anthony and Jessica found themselves stuck in a cycle of attending rehab, relapsing, going to jail and then back to using. Anthony’s mother took custody of the couple’s son, which was something of a wake-up call to Jessica. She got away from Anthony and her friends, attending a rehab facility on the outskirts of the state, and when she got clean she regained custody of Gage and began living in a shelter. Anthony, however, didn’t stop using. His mother found him sitting up, cross-legged on his bed, dead. She explained, “His eyes were closed and drool was coming out of his mouth. It was unnatural. I put my hand out and touched his back. He was cold.” The emergency responders tried to use naloxone, but it was too late. Now the family is left to deal with the guilt, sorrow and stress of his passing, and Anthony’s son will grow up without a father.

Questions Surrounding Naloxone

The most striking thing about Anthony’s story is how he and his friend used naloxone. He carried the substance around with him like a life raft. Even using it to prevent his friend from dying wasn’t enough to persuade Anthony to seek treatment for his own addiction. This story fits well with the criticisms of making the antidote more readily available—is it encouraging continued heroin abuse? Are we just implicitly giving addicts a pass to continue taking risks? It can easily seem like this, but naloxone critics have to remember just that—it does save lives. No matter how much we might disagree with what someone has done to himself, he doesn’t deserve to die from it, and anything that can help heroin users avoid a premature end needs to be supported. The most important thing is improving access to—and encouraging heroin abusers to seek—further help for their problem. Naloxone is not a “magic bullet” that can stop addiction, just a last-resort measure to prevent death and stop people like Stacy, Gage and Jessica from losing a loved one. For all people struggling with addiction, getting better requires some soul-searching, a lot of dedication and the right psychological support.

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