Faces of an Epidemic: Stories of the Victims of America’s Opioid Crisis

Faces of an Epidemic: Stories of the Victims of America’s Opioid Crisis — and the Fight to Save Lives

By @stevehelling and

Jack and Hunt Freeman were Texas brothers with a lot going for them. Hunt, 26, was a charismatic salesman at a Harley Davidson shop; Jack, 29, worked as a golf assistant at an upscale country club.

But the two also liked to party with alcohol and recreational drugs — first using marijuana and cocaine in high school and, later, moving on to heroin.

The brothers entered rehab multiple times, but neither could stay clean for long. On Valentine’s Day, Hunt fatally overdosed, sending Jack into a drug-fueled tailspin.

Three months later he overdosed, too.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what we’ve been through,” their mother, Kim Freeman, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue in a special report on the opioid crisis in America.

“To lose two children,” Freeman says, “is unimaginable.”

Heroin and other opioids are claiming lives throughout the U.S. at a staggering rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control, drug overdoses now kill more Americans than either guns or car accidents: 52,000 in 2015 alone, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

One person dies of an overdose every 10 minutes.

The vast majority of those deaths, approximately 80 percent, have taken place in white communities. Experts suggest this is in part because white Americans generally have better access to health care and are more likely to be prescribed narcotics, and research shows that four in five heroin users first abused prescription pills.

People become addicted to drugs such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin while being treated for a medical condition and then seek out more pills — or heroin — on the street when their prescription runs out.

“This problem of addiction truly does start in the medicine cabinet,” Russ Baer, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, tells PEOPLE. “It starts with the misuse and abuse of prescription opioid painkillers.”

A few of the people who overdosed on opioids in America (left to right, starting from top left): Katie Golden, 17; Garrett Moody, 27; Alison Collins, 22; Clyde Henderson, 62; Jacklyn Mastromauro, 29; Robert Mapps, 22; William Godwin II, 47; Samantha Roser, 23; Wolf Schinzel Sr., 47; Analicia Sutherland, 21; Ethan Beck, 26; Constance Crawford, 24; Ashley Nunnally, 26; Richard Cosner, 30; Celeste Tumminello, 25; Bryan Clay, 27; Jessica Caruso, 36 and Jack Freeman, 29.

What addiction is not, according to one retired police commander, is “a character flaw.”

The death rate from overdoses of heroin and prescription painkillers has more than quadrupled since 1999, prompting thousands of Americans to take action, including Philadelphia librarian Chera Kowalski and Stop the Heroin co-founder Bill Schmincke.

Kowalski, 33, was raised by parents who faced their own struggles with heroin. After witnessing an overdose on library property, she was trained, along with 25 other staffers, to administer Narcan, a nasal spray used for the emergency treatment of opioid overdoses.

In the past year she says she has saved six lives — providing six more chances for recovery.

“Once we can tell the Narcan works, there’s a huge sense of relief,” she says. “It provides me with hope that if they live, they have the opportunity to seek treatment, because long-term recovery is possible.”

Schmincke, 52, of Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, began the nonprofit Stop the Heroin with his wife, Tammy, after watching son Steven spiral from occasional marijuana use into a severe opioid addiction that landed him in rehab several times.

“He was a good kid; the drugs just got him,” Schmincke says.

“We’re about awareness now,” he says of their organization, which helps people transition from rehab to sober living. “We’d like to bring light to people who don’t understand addiction. They think these people out there are junkies and drug addicts, which they’re not. They’re in the grasp of a demon.”

Trump to Hold Briefing on Opioid Crisis Tuesday

With the opioid crisis intensifying and dozens of Americans dying of drug overdoses each day, President Trump plans to hold “a major briefing” on the issue with top administration officials at his private golf club on Tuesday afternoon.

A White House spokesman described the briefing as simply “an update on the opioid crisis” and said that the president is still reviewing a preliminary report from a commission on the crisis that urgently recommended more than a week ago that he declare a national emergency.

During his campaign, the president promised he would swiftly end the crisis by building a wall along the southern U.S. border to stop the flow of heroin into the country, boosting funding for recovery programs and approaching the problem with a humanitarian mind-set instead of a law-and-order one. In November’s election, Trump overperformed the most in counties with the highest drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates, according to a Pennsylvania State University study.

Now, more than 200 days into his presidency, activists say the president has done little to help.

Republicans in Congress have proposed cutting Medicaid in ways that health-care advocates say would reduce access to drug treatment for many, and the president’s budget proposal calls for reducing funding for addiction treatment, research and prevention efforts. Several Republican lawmakers who did not vote for their party’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act earlier this summer said that the legislation would make it more difficult for their states to combat the heroin epidemic.

In March, Trump established the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which is led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). The group was charged with studying “ways to combat and treat the scourge of drug abuse, addiction, and the opioid crisis.”

Last week, the commission issued a preliminary report that described the overdose death toll as “September 11th every three weeks” and urged the president to immediately “declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act.”

Doing so would allow the administration to remove some barriers and waive some federal rules, such as one that restricts where Medicaid recipients can receive addiction treatment. It would also put pressure on Congress to provide more funding. But some advocates worry that such a declaration would also expand the powers of the president and attorney general in a way that could allow abuse of law enforcement authority.

Christie said in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that he has received a “really good response from the White House” on the recommendations.

“We urge the president to take these steps,” Christie said. “He’s taking this commission seriously, as we are. And we make some very aggressive recommendations. And I’m confident he will adopt them.”

A White House spokesman said Tuesday morning that the “administration is still completing the review process of the recently submitted interim report” and is not yet ready for any announcements.

The preliminary report also calls for expanded access to drug treatment for Medicaid recipients, increased use of medication-assisted treatments, development of non-opioid pain relievers, wider use of a drug that can reverse an opiate overdose and more protections for individuals who report a drug overdose to first responders or law enforcement officials.

The report makes no mention of building a wall along the southern border or some of the tough-on-crime measures pushed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, including expanding the use of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes and seizing more cash and property from individuals suspected of drug crimes.

The opioid crisis has been building for years. In the mid-2000s, prescription overdose deaths began to rise, following aggressive marketing and widespread prescribing of the drugs that started in the late 1990s. When authorities began cracking down on prescription opioid abuse, increasing the street price of such drugs, some users turned to illicit street drugs such as heroin, which is sometimes mixed with powerful synthetic opiates such as fentanyl, making it even more deadly.

In 2015, more than 33,000 people died of opioid overdose, with another 20,000 dying from other drugs, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures. And deaths from drug overdoses rose sharply in the first nine months of 2016, the government reported Tuesday. The rate of overdose deaths increased every three months last year, reaching a record 19.9 per 100,000 people in the third quarter, up from 16.7 for the same three months in 2015. Data for the last three months of 2016 or this year is not yet available.

Since his election, Trump has continued talking about the opioid crisis and making broad promises. In his inaugural address, Trump said “drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential,” vowing that “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

In a January phone call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, a transcript of which was obtained by The Washington Post earlier this month, Trump bragged that he won New Hampshire because the state “is a drug-infested den,” a problem that he blamed on “drug lords in Mexico.” New Hampshire had the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During a campaign rally last week in West Virginia, which had the nation’s highest rate of deaths in 2015, Trump promised that “we are going to solve that problem.” In a Tuesday morning tweet, Trump called the opioid crisis “a major problem for our country.”

The president’s briefing is set to start at 3 p.m. at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price plans to be there, according to guidance from the White House.

A small group of reporters will be allowed to briefly observe at least part of the meeting, making this the president’s first public appearance since he arrived at the golf resort Friday evening for an 17-day vacation that has been pitched as a “working vacation” while parts of the White House are renovated. Photos trickled out on social media over the weekend showing the president zooming around the resort in a golf cart and greeting guests at a wedding being held at the club.

Lenny Bernstein, Christopher Ingraham and John Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.

U.S. to Crack Down on Opioid Treatment Programs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will unveil this week a major crackdown on healthcare fraud involving opioid treatment programs, Bloomberg News reported on Wednesday, citing two people familiar with the matter.

The Justice Department enforcement action will target hundreds of people nationwide who run drug addiction treatment centers and who have filed bogus claims, as well as those who have filed reimbursement claims for drugs they sold illegally, Bloomberg cited one of the people as saying.

Representatives for the department did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the report.

U.S. and state authorities are grappling with a national opioid addiction epidemic. Opioids, including prescription painkillers and heroin, killed more than 33,000 people in the United States in 2015, more than any year on record, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The planned nationwide sweep will lead to arrests in cities that include Miami, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles, with scores of arrests expected in southern Florida, Bloomberg reported.

It will focus on fraud against private insurers by treatment programs that have taken advantage of more generous coverage offered under the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law, according to Bloomberg.

Both of the people who discussed the initiative asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly about it, Bloomberg said.

In a related development, the Justice Department on Tuesday said Mallinckrodt Plc, one of the largest manufacturers of the generic opioid painkiller oxycodone, will pay $35 million to resolve allegations it failed to report suspicious drug orders.

Alcohol Withdrawal Complications Led to Heart Failure

True Blood’ Star Nelsan Ellis – Alcohol Withdrawal Complications Led to Heart Failure.

Nelsan Ellis’ heart failure was triggered by alcohol withdrawal complications.

The “True Blood” star’s family said Nelsan — who died Saturday — struggled with drug and alcohol abuse for years and his latest attempt to withdraw from booze on his own led to his death.

The family said, “During his withdrawal from alcohol he had a blood infection, his kidneys shut down, his liver was swollen, his blood pressure plummeted, and his dear sweet heart raced out of control.”

The family went on to say Nelsan “was ashamed of his addiction and thus was reluctant to talk about it during his life. His family, however, believes that in death he would want his life to serve as a cautionary tale in an attempt to help others.”

Ohio County Now Tops U.S. in Overdose Deaths

‘Mass-Casualty Event’: Ohio County Now Tops U.S. in Overdose Deaths

by Jacob Soboroff

DAYTON, Ohio — Officials in Montgomery County, Ohio, blame America’s opioid crisis for an ignoble title: the overdose capital of America.

“We’re on a pace to have 800 people die this year due to overdose in our county,” Sheriff Phil Plummer told NBC News. “Per capita, we’re Number 1 in the nation in overdose deaths.”

Overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 — they now claim more lives than car crashes, gun deaths and the AIDS virus did at their peaks.

In recent years, the synthetic opioid fentanyl been flooding Dayton and other American cities, trafficked by Mexican cartels who have turned the extremely potent drug into a money-maker.

In Ohio, it has sent the death toll surging. According to data from the Montgomery County coroner, 365 people died of drug overdoses from January through and May of this year; 371 people died of such causes in all of last year.

Related: What Is Fentanyl? The Drug That Killed Prince Has Killed Thousands of Others

On any given day, Montgomery County sheriff’s deputies respond to multiple overdose calls and are equipped with Narcan, or naloxone, a nasal spray that counteracts the effects of a drug overdose.

Each deputy carries two doses, but that isn’t always enough to save lives. One deputy said that more than 20 doses were needed to revive a recent victim and that victims often don’t survive.

The death toll has overwhelmed the coroner, who tests for more than two dozen varieties of fentanyl during autopsies, and the county morgue’s body cooler is consistently filled with overdose victims.

Coroner Kent Harshbarger estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of the bodies he sees are those of overdose victims and that by the end of the year, he’ll have processed 2,000.

Because his staff covers one-fifth of Ohio, he estimates that the state will see 10,000 overdoses by the end of 2017 — more than were recorded in the entire United States in 1990.

“This is no different than some kind of mass-casualty event in any other form. It’s just a medical event,” Harshbarger said in a hallway just steps from several autopsy rooms that doctors were walking in and out of. “It needs to be recognized that way to bring some federal assets to help us.”

4 dead, at least a dozen hospitalized after mass overdose in Georgia

The Georgia Department of Public Health said as of Wednesday morning, six more overdose cases possibly related to fake Percocet were reported. None of these cases have been confirmed as overdoses related to the street drugs.

Georgia Poison Center is currently working with the hospitals and gathering more information to determine whether these additional cases are connected to the cluster of overdoses reported in the past three days.

State and local investigators are fanning out to catch those who sold street drugs linked to dozens of overdoses, include four fatal in Central Georgia.

Emergency workers responded in the last 48 hours to reports of overdoses in Centerville, Perry and Warner Robins, according to the GBI. However, the drugs might also have been sold on the street in other areas of the state.

Doctor are eagerly awaiting toxicology tests to find out what is in these pills that triggered this mass overdose.

They worry about the possibility of more cases if this drug is still on the streets.

“Difficulty breathing, slurred speech, most are coming through the ambulance,” Dr. Chris Hendry said.

The chief medical officer describes the symptoms of the rash of overdose patients that have arrived at a Macon hospital in the last 48 hours.

They all had one thing in common, they took pills that they thought were pharmaceutical quality pain meds. They were wrong.

Ohio Attorney General Sues 5 Drugmakers Over Opiate Crisis

Julie Carr Smyth, Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio attorney general sued five drugmakers on Wednesday, accusing the companies of perpetrating the state’s addictions epidemic by intentionally misleading patients about the dangers of painkillers and promoting benefits of the drugs not backed by science.

Attorney General Mike DeWine said the companies created a deadly mess in Ohio that they now need to pay to clean up.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine

“This lawsuit is about justice, it’s about fairness, it’s about what is right,” DeWine said in announcing the complaint filed in Ross County, a southern Ohio community slammed by fatal drug overdoses from painkillers and heroin. A record 3,050 Ohioans died from drug overdoses in 2015, a figure expected to jump sharply once 2016 figures are tallied.

DeWine wants an injunction stopping the companies from their alleged misconduct and damages for money the state spent on opiates sold and marketed in Ohio. The attorney general also wants customers repaid for unnecessary opiate prescriptions for chronic pain.

“These drug companies knew that what they were doing was wrong and they did it anyway,” DeWine said.

The drugmakers sued by DeWine are Purdue Pharma; Endo Health Solutions; Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, and its subsidiary, Cephalon; Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals; and Allergan.

They variously manufacture OxyContin, Percocet and a host of other painkillers that DeWine said represent the heart of the problem.

Christina Arredondo said her 24-year-old pregnant daughter, Felicia Detty, died after a painkiller addiction led to heroin and overdose. She said she’s hopeful the Ohio lawsuit can begin to curtail the epidemic by fighting it “from the top.”

“It’s not like they’re going out to buy some cocaine on the street,” she said. “They’re going to the doctor for a torn ligament in their shoulder, or migraines, or having a tooth pulled.”

Janssen on Wednesday called the lawsuit’s accusations legally and factually unfounded. The company said it acted appropriately, responsibly and in the best interests of patients.

Another defendant, Purdue Pharma, said it shares DeWine’s concerns about the opiate crisis and is committed to working together on a solution. It won’t say if it’s challenging the lawsuit.

Teva Pharmaceuticals says it’s still reviewing the lawsuit and is unable to comment.

Endo declined comment. A message was left seeking comment with Allergan.

DeWine, a Republican expected to run for governor next year, joins other states that have filed similar lawsuits. His move comes after years of calls for such action by Ohio Democrats.

Democratic candidate Nan Whaley, Dayton’s mayor, is airing online video spots in which she criticizes sitting Republicans for doing too little to solve the heroin and opioid epidemic. Whaley says taking on drug companies for their role in the crisis will be her highest priority as governor.

Another gubernatorial contender, Democratic state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, said he had previously called for such an action.

“I hope that whatever financial settlement this lawsuit might bring will be put toward helping the victims of this epidemic,” he said. “In the meantime, the General Assembly must do more to provide the resources our counties desperately need now for drug treatment and other services.”

In 2015, Kentucky settled a similar lawsuit with Purdue Pharma for $24 million.

Oregon reached a settlement in 2015 with opioid painkiller manufacturer Insys for off-label promotion of Subsys, a fentanyl spray more powerful than heroin. It was also among 27 states that reached a settlement with Purdue, the maker of OxyContin, in 2007.

Tiger Woods told police after his DUI charge that he has prescriptions for 4 drugs — here’s what they do

Tiger Woods DUITiger Woods told police after his DUI charge that he has prescriptions for 4 drugs — here’s what they do

Police arrested and charged Tiger Woods was with DUI at 3 a.m. on Monday morning, citing “an unexpected reaction to prescribed medications.” The police report indicated that Woods was found asleep in his car while it was running. An alcohol breathalyzer test showed Woods had a blood alcohol level of 0.00, but his arrest report indicates he was taking four prescription medications at various points in the past few years, most of which are typically prescribed for pain.

The officers recorded (and likely misspelled) these as “soloxex,” “torix,” “viox,” and Vicodin, according to The Palm Beach Post.

Vicodin, the brand name for a painkiller that combines the opiate hydrocodone with the over-the-counter pain reliever acetaminophen (or Tylenol), is a Schedule II substance due to its high potential for addiction. Its side effects can include confusion, depressed breathing, and drowsiness.

Torix, which is most likely a misspelling of Turox, is a brand name for another pain- and swelling-relief drug called etoricoxib. The drug is illegal in the US; its side effects can include fatigue and chest pain.

Vioxx, a brand name drug that Woods indicated he had not taken within the past year, was discontinued in 2004 after being linked to heart issues. It was used to reduce swelling.

Over the course of his career, Woods likely struggled with pain. He not only injured his knees, legs, and back playing golf, but also underwent multiple surgeries for those injuries and crashed a car. While we don’t know how he or his physicians chose to manage his pain, we do know that prescriptions for pain medications, including opioid painkillers, are common in such situations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of people who undergo surgery get an opioid prescription.

Woods’ non-opioid prescriptions also come with side effects —  while less severe than those that accompany Vicodin, the effects can include fatigue and confusion.

Painkillers to Heroin, New Film Shows It Can ‘Happen to Anybody”

by Corky Siemaszko

Only one of them is still alive when the credits close on “Warning: This Drug May Kill You,” a searing study of the plague directed by longtime New York newswoman Perri Peltz.

But in the final frames, the fate of a young survivor named Stephany Gay is anything but certain as she quits a program designed to wean her off the drugs that killed her sister and wrecked her life — after just six days.

“She is doing much better,” Peltz told NBC News, where she worked for many years before she began making documentaries. “She just completed a 30-day rehab program with medication and she will be starting another. Our fingers are crossed.”

That would be the kind of happy ending that was denied to Gail Cole, whose story about losing her 22-year-old son Brendan to a heroin overdose is part of the movie.

“What we’re trying to do with this documentary is honor his memory and make sure he did not die in vain,” said Cole, who lives in Allendale, N.J. “We are basically trying to get people more educated and aware that we have a heroin epidemic because we have prescription painkiller epidemic. And that it can happen to anybody.”

Peltz spoke to NBC shortly before the film made its debut Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival. The new film comes as the governors of Ohio and New Jersey have taken steps to combat the crisis by limiting the amount of painkillers doctors can prescribe.

Three out of four “new heroin users” abused prescription opioids before they started using heroin, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Peltz she said the seeds for the piece were planted during a discussion with one of the head honchos of HBO who wanted to know “why there were so many stories of people overdosing and dying.”

“Right now we have close to 100 people a day dying and she wanted to know why the narrative was those somehow these were bad kids abusing good drugs,” said Peltz. “By and large these aren’t bad people abusing good drugs. In fact, it’s good people who become addicted and most often it starts with a legitimate prescription.” Case in point: Wynne Doyle, a doomed mother of three in tony Mill Valley, California, whose road to ruin was paved with painkillers she was prescribed after her third C-section.

“Doctors were just throwing pills at her,” her still grieving husband says, his eyes welliing-up with tears.

Then there’s Georgia Cayce, who was 26 and living with her parents in New Jersey when she died of a heroin overdose. She got hooked not long after she was prescribed “monster painkillers” for a back injury she suffered during a fall.

“By the time the prescription ran out, she needed more,” her weeping father David Cayce says on camera.

And there’s young Brendan, who died of a heroin overdose four years after he was prescribed opioids after an operation to remove a cyst.

“You completely underestimate how hard the battle with addiction is,” his father, Brian, says in the film. “As a father you have this guilt that it happened on your watch.” Being reassured you did everything you could does not lessen the pain, he adds.

“That will always lingering the back of your mind,” Brian Cole says.

But it’s Gay’s story that looms largest over a documentary that begins with jarring footage of people overdosing, including one especially wrenching shot of a weeping child trying to pull her unconscious mother off the floor of a store.

As the stories unfold in the film, Peltz does not intrude.

“In a story that is as powerful as this, I felt a reporter’s voice imposing itself was not necessary,” she said. “The victims of this horrible epidemic speak more eloquently than I ever could.”

Gay, who lives north of Chicago, recounts how her heroin addiction began shortly after she was was sent home from the hospital with Dilaudid, Vicodin, and Oxycontin after she was treated for kidney stones at age 16.

“In the beginning I would take my Vicodin as prescribed,” she says.

Soon, she began taking “an extra one here and there.” And when she realized she had a problem and went to the doctor, she came home with yet another highly-addictive opioid — Percocet.

Gay describes how she wound up sharing pills with her older sister Ashley and how they graduated from that to snorting heroin.

“I felt it loved me,” Gay says. “I felt like it loved me.” And Gay’s love affair with heroin doesn’t wane even after her sister dies of an overdose in 2013.

“I do blame prescription opioids for my daughter’s addiction,” Gay’s mother, Kathy, says. “I trusted the doctors.”

“Warning: This Drug May Kill You” debuts on HBO on May 1st at 10 p.m.

Gov. Hogan declares state of emergency in heroin epidemic

ANNAPOLIS, M.d. – Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in response to the heroin epidemic in Maryland.

Hogan made the announcement at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency Wednesday. He discussed Maryland’s recent efforts to combat opioid addiction and announced an additional $50 million in funding to support heroin prevention, treatment and enforcement efforts.

“We need to treat this crisis the exact same way that we would treat any other state emergency,” Hogan said.

The state’s accelerated efforts are in response to a recent increase in heroin use and heroin-related deaths. Hogan said heroin and opioid deaths have doubled in the last year, while heroin use has tripled nationwide.

There are now an estimated 27 million heroin users across the country, Hogan said.

“This is about an all hands on deck approach so that together, we can save the lives of thousands of Marylanders,” he said.