For Summerfield resident Janice Spring, home will never be the same — not since the death of her son, Derek.
Sept. 13 will mark a year since he died of a prescription drug overdose.
Derek’s death was quick, occurring just minutes after Janice had checked on him.
“I just had a bad feeling,” Janice Spring says. “I went back into the room and tried to shake him. I couldn’t wake him up. He wasn’t breathing anymore.”
Today, a small black cat wanders into the room, nuzzling a chair leg. Derek had found it and brought it home not too long before he died.
“That little kitty was the only thing that made us laugh (after Derek died),” Janice Spring says.
“It’s a feeling of helplessness,” she says of her son’s overdose. “I didn’t know these drugs would kill him. That’s why as hard as it is, it’s important for us to share our story. I didn’t hear people talking about this.”
A downward spiral
Derek always wore a smile on his face, was full of good humor and surrounded by friends.
“He was always fun to be around,” childhood friend Ryan Nagle, 18, says. “I never had a moment with him that was depressing. He was always there for you. His house was a second home to us.”
Nagle started at Southeast High to try out its International Baccalaureate program his freshman year rather than heading to Lakewood Ranch with his friends.
“I didn’t see (Derek) as much,” Nagle remembers. “That’s when all my friends started dabbling in drugs.”
They heard about the drugs in middle school but stayed away. But, something had changed. Many of the teens simply were bored and looking for something to do, Nagle says.
Derek had been focused on skateboarding, like Nagle, until he broke his ankle the summer after his freshman year. Confined to watch the activity, he made new friends.
Somehow, drugs became commonplace.
“(The teens) just had a lack of motivation,” Nagle says. “They got high instead. They’d try to sell me stuff — shoes, their music equipment — (to buy drugs).”
In the three months prior to his death when Derek’s prescription drug usage skyrocketed, he began losing weight rapidly. In many cases, drugs suppress the appetite, but users also get a bigger high when the drugs are taken on an empty stomach.
“I always told him to be careful, that he wasn’t taking the right path,” Nagle says. “I knew something was going to happen; I just didn’t know it was going to happen that soon.Derek was a good kid. I just don’t think he understood the severity of what he was doing.”
In his battle against an addiction to Xanax and Oxycontin, Derek had begun self-medicating with Methadone to help him wean off the other drugs.
Sessions with a private counselor were scheduled to start just a few days after Derek died.
“We felt like he was trying to come back to us,” Janice Spring says. “He thought he would get sick from going off the drugs. He started taking Methadone (on his own) because kids he knew doing treatment were taking it. He thought he was curing himself. It was ultimately the Methadone that killed him.”
A harsh reality
The day she turned 19, Audrey Dinkel had no reason to celebrate.
As of that morning, her childhood friend — Derek Spring — was dead because of a prescription drug overdose. About a month later, Dinkel took her own sister to the emergency room for the same reason.
Her sister had come home acting strangely, saying she’d only taken a single pill because someone gave it to her for free.
But in the early morning hours, Dinkel awoke to find her parents panicked. Her sister wasn’t breathing.
“I started CPR,” she says. “It seemed like forever until the paramedics got here.”
At the hospital, doctors worked to pump the drugs out of her sister’s body, placing tubes in her throat and nose.
“It was a scary sight,” Dinkel says. “But I took a picture of her — I felt horrible doing it — but wanted her to see whenever she got better. I wanted her to remember the next time she may be dead.”
After Derek’s death, several teens — even Dinkel’s sister — pledged to stop taking prescription drugs. A handful held to their word, but even some of those individuals still smoke marijuana or do other drugs. Still, others have continued using just the same.
Two girls overdosed within three weeks of Derek’s death, Janice Spring says.
Nagle says he knew teens who would save their lunch money at school to buy drugs instead of food. He also used to see drugs, paraphernalia and prescription pills regularly at the bathrooms at Lakewood. He’d even find drugs in clothing turned in to the local dry cleaner where he worked.
“I hate the fact that (the drugs) are so accessible,” Dinkel says. “That’s what makes it bad. How many people have to die for kids to get the news flash? It could happen to anyone. It needs to end immediately.”
A deadly attraction
The lure of prescription drugs isn’t limited to the euphoric feelings they produce.
With them comes a stigma of safety not associated with drugs such as heroine or cocaine. Only prescription pills are dispensed at the discretion of doctors. Their origin, particularly for name brand drugs, seems trustworthy.
“People feel like it’s safer because it’s FDA-approved,” says Dr. John Haggarty, an emergency room physician at Lakewood Ranch Medical Center and Manatee Memorial Hospital. “There’s a purity issue. It’s a more reliable substance.”
And the pills also may be more available than any other drug.
Teens abusing prescription pills often look to their parents’ medicine cabinets. Taking only a pill or two at a time often isn’t noticed — especially if those adults are no longer taking the medications. Unused pills can be sold at a premium.
“(These pills are) everywhere,” says Capt. Kristin Kennedy, of the Child Protection Investigation Division of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s so easy for kids to get their hands on this stuff. They can go to their doctor and convince them to give them a prescription for something.”
Because Florida does not have a prescription drug monitoring program in effect, teens can visit multiple doctors, get prescriptions from each one and have all those filled — often without question.
“It’s so easy to get,” Kennedy says. “It’s easy to pop in your mouth. You don’t reek of alcohol. You don’t leave track marks on your arms. All you need is a glass of water.”
The waiting period for prescription pills may be what makes them most deadly. When someone first starts using the medications, the feelings of euphoria are much more immediate. But soon, more medication is needed to provide the same effect.
“A lot of this prescription medication is time-released, so they have started snorting it, which gets rid of the time release,” Kennedy says. “They can overdose with one pill. They get a big burst all at once instead of just how a pain medication is supposed to work.”
Frequently, teens take multiple pills just waiting to feel the effect. By then, there’s so much medication in their system that it may be too late.
Painkillers such as Percoset, Vicodin, Oxycodone and Oxycontin make the body drowsy and can potentially stop someone’s breathing or at least take away their protective or gag reflexes, Haggarty says.
Just three weeks ago, he treated a teen at Manatee Memorial Hospital who had come in unconscious because of an overdose. The boy had vomited, sending the contents from his stomach into his lungs.
“He didn’t get enough oxygen and had a brain injury,” Haggarty says. “People aren’t aware of the dosage or the effect, and they basically take too much.”
Or when they go to sleep, they simply stop breathing — like Derek did — and never wake up.
“A lot of times with prescription drugs, the kids start using them the way they are supposed to be used so the parents don’t notice,” Kennedy says. “The kids start using more and more, and that’s when it becomes obvious. It may be too late (then).”
Like Janice Spring, mothers Ruth Lyerly and Cindy Harney have lost sons to addictions to prescription pills.
The women formed Families Against Addictive Drug Abuse in 2007 and have been fighting nonstop ever since to spread the word about the dangers of drugs — particularly prescription pills.
They brought the faces of Manatee and Sarasota teens killed by drugs or drug users on a banner to Tallahassee, where the women successfully lobbied state legislators for passage of a prescription drug-monitoring program.
“We went to every door that would open,” Lyerly says of her visit to the capitol.
Gov. Charlie Crist signed the bill into law in June, authorizing the program, which will track prescriptions filled by individuals. If someone gets a prescription for the same pain medication from multiple doctors, for example, a pharmacy will know and refuse to dispense it.
The program is expected to be implemented in 2010, Lyerly says.
But the monitoring program, although helpful, will not be the cure-all for the prescription drug problem, the women say.
Parents should be diligent and not ignore warning signs such as extreme weight loss, anger and mood swings, seclusion, clumsiness and the selling of personal items such as iPods.
Harney’s red flag went up when her son, Garrett, used bathroom in his grandmother’s bathroom instead of the guest bathroom in front, she says.
If children are coming home drunk from parties on weekends consistently, they should know their child could be doing other drugs, Kennedy says. In the case of prescription drugs, simply sending them to bed to sleep it off may be the difference between life and death.
Kennedy advocated for random drug testing children, whether parents suspect they are using drugs or not. She also suggested monitoring children’s text messaging and e-mails because many drug deals are handled that way.
Catching the addiction fast is critical because it can spiral from recreational use to incoherency within a few months. If a child is addicted, parents should require their child to attend a long-term treatment program of at least six months. An early out should not be an option, she says.
“It’s not an easy thing to get off,” she says.
Harney and Lyerly also are advocating for the Medicine Cabinet Project, which is in effect in Fort Myers. The project provides a drop-off location once a year for unused, unnecessary or expired prescription drugs so they can be properly disposed of and kept out of the hands of teens.
The women also recognize prescription drugs are readily available online.
“That’s a huge issue we’re going to have to face down the line,” Lyerly says. “That’s the next thing.”
The challenges ahead are many, but the women, like Spring, are adamant about raising awareness about the problem of prescription drug abuse so that no parent loses a child as they have.
Each overdose they hear of drives them deeper into the cause.
“We have to do more,” Lyerly says. “We have to do more.”
Contact Pam McTeer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prescription drugs lead in drug-related deaths
In the United States, the number of deaths from drug overdoses has increased dramatically.
Drug overdoses now surpass gunshot wounds and rank only second to motor vehicle accidents as a cause of accidental death, said Katherine Bush, of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Nationally, the number of drug-induced deaths per 100,000 has increased from 6.9 in 1999 to 12.8 in 2006 — a 101% increase over that period according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
• Methadone-related deaths increased almost 600% over the same time period (to 5,416 deaths in 2006).
• In Florida, drug-related deaths increased 11% from 2006 to 2008. Prescription drugs accounted for 75% of all drug occurrences (excluding alcohol) in drug deaths in Florida.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that each year more than 20,000 people in the United States die from drug overdoses, with the highest rate of death among adults ages 35-44.
A study of seven states, including Florida, however, reported by 2007, more teenagers in those states used opioid analgesics recreationally than used marijuana.
Of the states studied by the CDC, Florida had the highest number of overdose deaths according to data from 2005 with 2,003 deaths. North Carolina ranked second with 848 deaths, and Kentucky ranked third with 586 deaths.