EAST COUNTY — Dr. Russell Vega gets to prescription drug-overdose victims after it’s too late to save them.
Often times, friends waited nearby for the person to “sleep the drugs off.” A loud rattled snore, which Vega calls the “death snore,” escapes as the body tries to overcome respiratory depression, a decreased drive and ability for the lungs to breathe.
Once that happens, it’s Vega’s turn to provide post-mortem medical attention.
Vega, the Sarasota District 12 medical examiner and other panelists, including Sgt. Debra Kaspar, of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office; Judy Sperling, a drug counselor and therapist; and Lisa Brandy, president of Brandi’s Wish Foundation, named after her daughter who died of a drug overdose two years ago at age 18, led a Prescription Drug Awareness discussion Feb. 28, at The Out-of-Door Academy.
The event, which featured a performance of The Holding Cell by the SOURCE Theatre and was sponsored by the Sarasota Medical Alliance Foundation, served as a way for the public to learn about prescription drugs — drug overdoses now are the No.1 cause of accidental death in the United States — from people on the front lines of the epidemic.
The experts spoke of a prescription-drug problem that, with more awareness, better community initiatives and stronger enforcement, is hitting a plateau.
Still, the group called for bystanders to become active players in halting a trend that has become all too familiar — 60% of prescription-drug overdoses occur in the presence of another person.
A 2012 “Good Samaritan” law passed in the Florida Senate encourages witnesses acting in good faith to report overdoses in return for not being prosecuted for their own actions, in certain situations.
Vega describes his role in the prescription-drug cycle bluntly: “I deal with death,” he says. He deals with overdoses across Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties and has seen the drug of choice transform from illegal cocaine and heroine 25 years ago, to legal prescription drugs 10 years ago.
New data from 2012, set to be released early this year, will show numbers leveling, with slight decreases, Vega says.
In Sarasota County, Vega diagnoses accidental prescription-drug deaths 50 to 60 times a year. The drugs are often combined with other drugs or with alcohol.
“I try to present this stuff in factual ways for people so we can have a real goal, that is, to prevent some of these deaths, because a lot of lives can be salvaged with someone intervening,” Vega says.
He describes the science of why digesting too many drugs at one time kills, how the drugs affect the central nervous system and block pain receptors and how the cardiovascular and respiratory systems can’t function properly, as the drugs loosen a barrier in the lungs, allowing them to fill up with fluid and block breathing.
It’s a process that brings a quick death, and Vega talks about it to alert people to the fragility of the cycle.
“A person may seem fine, their snoring a little funny. You leave, check on them a little later, and they’re dead,” Vega says. “That’s how it happens.”
Advocating for change
Two recent rulings sparked the leveling off of prescription-drug overdoses in Sarasota County: A 2010 moratorium commissioners enacted said, “no more pain clinics,” and a 2011 ordinance required pain clinics to use a monitoring system that tracks the drugs a patient has been prescribed before a doctor at the clinic can prescribe more.
Kaspar credits those two initiatives for prescription-drug overdoses (accidental) in Sarasota County dropping from 246 in 2010 to 225 in 2011.
Other contributors are community partnerships, led by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, such as a pilot program at Pine View School started in the fall. Children created public service announcements to make the community aware of the problem.
The best PSA ran as a commercial on local television. Kaspar hopes to expand the program into more high schools this year.
Operation Medicine Cabinet, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration-led initiative that allows people to dispose unwanted and unused medicine, has seen great success in the county since it began in 2009.
In 2009, four county drop-off centers collected 277 pounds of drugs. That number spiked to 1,462 last year.
“Everybody has to be a part of the solution,” Kaspar says.
The effort has yielded strong results in Manatee County, as well.
A mother’s nightmare
Brandy’s daughter’s cycle with prescription drugs, from the time she used Oxycodone as a sleeping aide to the time it killed her, lasted 18 months.
Brandy ran a zero-tolerance policy household, but that didn’t stop her daughter, Brandi Meshad, from getting the drugs from a friend.
Meshad was with a friend at the time leading up to her death, but the friend left Meshad alone. Meshad died less than a mile from her house, at her grandparent's Sarasota home.
“Kids know it’s wrong,” Brandy says. “There’s this thought that ‘I will be the one to out live it.’ But death does not discriminate.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].