WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) - Rob Kennedy Jr. isn’t ashamed to admit he nearly succumbed to his heroin addiction many times.
“Nine, ten times - dead - brought back,” the Kingston man recalled recently.
Sometimes it took an ice bath to make him snap out of the overdose. Other times he needed the opioid-reversal drug naloxone to be revived.
Many of Kennedy’s acquaintances throughout Luzerne County weren’t so lucky.
Luzerne County experienced a record-breaking 139 drug overdose deaths in 2016, a 107 percent increase in just two years. Kennedy estimates he knew 30 of the people from using or recovery classes.
He said he’s been sober for three months, but acknowledged the “sleeping tiger” that is addiction is tough to beat.
“It’s hard to get clean when you have dope dealers calling you up every few seconds,” the 38-year-old said. “They don’t care about killing someone. They only care about the change they’re putting in their pocket.”
Kennedy’s girlfriend, Erin Rowan, a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for five years, said she always worries he’ll relapse.
“I live in fear everyday I’m going to find him dead,” Rowan said.
Overdose epidemic strikes
The local overdose crisis, fueled primarily by heroin laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl, caused NBC News to alter its plans when it came to the area recently for a story on Luzerne County’s pivotal role in the presidential election.
The focus instead shifted to the overdose epidemic here and the eventual story came with the headline “Wilkes-Barre Faces Heroin Scourge Turning It Into ‘the Most Unhappy Place in America.’”
And the deaths keep coming in 2017.
“There have been five in the first 11 days of the new year,” Luzerne County Coroner Bill Lisman said during an interview last week at his office.
Lisman said the heroin today is more toxic than ever, but addicts keep doing the drug.
“One woman assured me her son didn’t die of an overdose. He said to her, ‘Mom, I would never go back to using drugs. The heroin today is being laced with fentanyl. That in itself would keep me from using drugs,’” Lisman recalled. “So, the consumers are aware of the risk.”
Lisman said the overdose victims come from all age groups, all backgrounds and all levels of social status - a point made clear by Gov. Tom Wolf, who has declared the statewide opioid crisis as one of his top priorities of 2017.
“This is not just Luzerne County’s problem,” Lisman said. “It’s a problem across the country.”
Few know this better than Bruce Brandler, the new U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, which covers 33 counties.
Brandler’s son died of a heroin overdose a decade ago.
He publicly shared his family’s story for the first time during a recent interview with the Associated Press around the time he announced his office’s strategy for battling the crisis.
“I felt it was an appropriate time to do so because of the heroin epidemic. This heroin epidemic has affected every social strata,” Brandler said in a telephone interview last week. “I think my situation, although it was 10 years ago, shows the problem cuts through a wider swath of the population. It’s a personally painful situation to talk about, but maybe it could help others.”
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch last year ordered all U.S. Attorneys to develop a plan to deal with the crisis in their district.
Brandler’s strategy to combat the epidemic, outlined in a 10-page summary, revolves around prevention, enforcement and treatment. Staff will descend into the communities, drug deals that result in death will be a top priority for prosecution and addicts will be lined up with treatment plans.
“I can’t say I’m confident it will make a difference, but it’s necessary to try,” Brandler said.
Of the 30 overdose victims in 2016 that Kennedy knew, one of them was Amanda Ellsworth, a petite, 36-year-old, former model who was in beauty school at the time she died on Aug. 3.
Rowan was Ellsworth’s sponsor in a 12-step recovery program. They used to sit on the porch of Rowan’s home in Kingston and do the “book work” for the program - an activity they did just two days before she died.
“She was trying. She was working really hard to get sober,” Rowan said. “She was willing to do the work. She said she wanted what I had - to go through the 12 steps.”
Ellsworth’s family addressed her long battle with addiction in her obituary:
“Amanda’s beauty and spirit will never be forgotten. Unfortunately, we will never see her come to her true potential and happiness due to the epidemic of drug abuse … She should have had so many more years ahead of her. She follows the many who have fallen to the same end. We as her family will always remember the beautiful girl she was and not let the addiction define who she was.”
Rowan, 29, said people often classify addicts as worthless people.
“Uneducated people are saying these stupid junkies deserve to die. They are not. They are sick, desperate and need help,” Rowan said.
Rowan, who has a degree in business administration, said she met Ellsworth at a recovery meeting years ago.
“She was so pretty I assumed she was stuck up, but she was so sweet,” Rowan said.
In 2016, Ellsworth sought Rowan out to be her sponsor. She agreed.
Ellsworth was clean for two weeks before she relapsed the final time. She and Rowan had spent the day together on Aug. 1. They did recovery work and then went out for pizza before Rowan dropped Ellsworth off at her house in Plymouth. Ellsworth assured Rowan everything was fine in her life.
Ellsworth was found dead the morning of Aug. 3
“She didn’t even have a car,” Rowan said. “The drug dealer brought it to her.”
Rowan and Kennedy were allowed into the apartment after the body was removed. They spotted nearly 50 bags of used heroin. The experience triggered a relapse for Kennedy.
“Amanda OD’d and then a week later Rob relapsed on heroin, which is what Amanda just died from. I was trying to mourn her, and then I was worried about him too,” Rowan said.
Ellsworth’s cousin, Nicole Ratowski of Wilkes-Barre, noted that Ellsworth was released from a detox center two weeks before her death. That lowered her tolerance.
“She was in detox for five days. She got out and thought she could do as much as she was doing. It killed her,” Ratowski said.
Ratowski, 29, said she’s hoping Ellsworth’s story could encourage people to seek help and stay sober.
“This disease does not discriminate,” she said.
Confessions of an addict
When Kennedy started doing heroin at age 14, while going to Coughlin High School, he used to have to go to Philadelphia to get the drug.
After high school, he toured the country following bands and sold drugs in the parking lot, mostly psychedelic mushrooms and nitrous oxide balloons.
“Within an hour, I’d have $7,000 in my pocket,” Kennedy recalled.
He said he’d find the nearest place to buy drugs to sell the next day, then partied hard all night.
“I’d wake up in the morning with nothing. I’d have drugs, but not a dime for food,” he recalled.
Then, one morning he woke up to find his then-fiancee dead, with a needle still in her arm from injecting drugs.
“I stayed in the house for three days with the body before I did anything. I never paid any consequences until her death,” Kennedy said.
The consequences started to come after that following multiple run-ins with the law.
Kennedy has multiple arrests in Luzerne County, including illegal possession of a gun as a convicted felon, which landed him in jail for 20 months.
Kennedy said he works in construction and plays in two bands. He said he tries to keep busy so he can keep himself sober this time.
He noted that most of the times he and friends have overdosed is when they used heroin while also abusing prescription drugs like Xanax and Valium.
“The disease doesn’t get weaker because you went to rehab for a month,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy’s girlfriend keeps the opioid-reversal drug naloxone in their house and in her purse. The drug has brought him back to life several times prior to them meeting.
“You never know when you are going to need some,” she said.
Naloxone saving lives
The Wilkes-Barre Fire Department and its fleet of paramedics used naloxone 163 times on suspected opioid overdose victims in 2016, according to fire Chief Jay Delaney.
The drug’s sole purpose is to reverse the effects that opioids have on the brain and respiratory system - from the street drug heroin to legal pharmaceuticals like OxyContin.
Delaney has described naloxone as a “wonder drug.”
It’s now available as a nasal spray and, at about $60 a dose, is far cheaper than it cost years ago.
Pennsylvania’s Physician General, Dr. Rachel Levine, has issued a “standing order” that allows any Pennsylvania resident - addicts, their family or friends - to obtain the drug from a pharmacy without a prescription.
It traditionally did the job fast, but heroin laced with fentanyl is requiring lifesavers to administer multiple doses, Delaney said.
“These are human beings, we are working to save their lives, that come from all walks of life, that have a disease,” the chief said. “There is nothing on this earth more addictive than heroin.”
Someone overdosing on heroin can stop breathing in as little as five minutes, so getting naloxone to them quickly is a necessity, Delaney said.
Delaney, who is a paramedic, said reviving a user is the first step. He said addicts are urged to go to the emergency room after being revived because they can still overdose after the naloxone wears off.
“That is critically important,” Delaney said.
Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Plains Township treated 162 people for opioid overdoses in 2016, up from 135 in 2015, a spokeswoman said. Wilkes-Barre General Hospital treated 27 people for opioid overdoses last year, a representative said.
Delaney said he thinks the NBC News report unfairly tarnished Wilkes-Barre as having a worse problem with heroin than all other places in the country.
“In my opinion, heroin overdose is a national epidemic that hits all areas, from rural to suburban to urban areas,” Delaney said. “The demographics of heroin overdose hits every segment of a community, from male to female, and from teenagers to seniors, and from rich to poor, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers.”
“Worst public health crisis”
Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health Karen Murphy came to Luzerne County on Friday to address the opioid crisis.
“The opioid epidemic is the worst public health crisis I’ve seen so far in my professional career,” Murphy said during her visit to Misericordia University in Dallas. “This area of Pennsylvania has been hit hard by heroin and prescription opioid overdoses.”
Heroin and opioid overdoses are now responsible for more deaths than motor vehicle crashes, she said.
Murphy highlighted some of Gov. Wolf’s initiatives to fight the opioid epidemic, which include:
. A standing order to obtain naloxone without a prescription,
. Strengthening the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program so that doctors are required and able to check the system each time they prescribe opioids,
. Forming new prescribing guidelines to help doctors who provide opioid prescriptions to their patients,
. Creating new guidelines to facilitate referrals from the emergency department to substance abuse treatment,
. Establishing a new law limiting the amount of opioids that can be prescribed to a minor to an amount lasting seven days..
“Many of the students, professionals, and members of the community in the audience today are affected or know someone who has been impacted by this devastating epidemic,” Murphy said.
The state operates a toll free telephone, 1-800-662-HELP, to match addicts with treatment options.
One mother: two addicts
Carol Coolbaugh of West Pittston lost one child to an overdose and has another in recovery.
The scourge of addiction caused the retired nurse to organize a local chapter of the support group Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing, or GRASP.
Coolbaugh’s son, Erik, died of an overdose in 2009 after a lifetime battle with addiction to street drugs. He was 29 and left behind three children. Next Sunday is the eighth anniversary. He was on methadone at the time while trying to kick his heroin habit.
“I feel like he tried. I think he wanted a sober life, but he wanted the drugs more,” Coolbaugh, 66, said.
Erik’s father was angry with his son for his choices in life, but Coolbaugh said she always tried to help him.
“Enabling? Yes. It’s hard not to,” she said. “They are your kids and you always want to fix things for them.”
Coolbaugh’s daughter. Jennifer, was an addict behind the scenes for a decade. She got addicted to pain pills following a surgery years ago, then started chewing on patches of the powerful pain killer fentanyl.
“I was never out on the streets. I doctor shopped,” Jennifer, 42, said.
She was a sixth grade teacher for the Wyoming Area School District until she could no longer be a functioning addict. She took unpaid leave in August 2014 and never returned.
“I was a teacher and went high to school every day,” Jennifer said. “My next step was heroin.”
Jennifer sought treatment in a program and has been clean for 18 months. She moved in with her mother and has gotten engaged to a man she met in the program.
Despite all the people trying to help her, she fears she might relapse.
“I’m scared to death,” she said. “I don’t trust myself yet.”
Her mother was quick to reassure her.
“That’s why it’s one day at a time,” Carol Coolbaugh said.
OVERDOSES: BY THE NUMBERS IN 2016
. 139 - Fatal overdoses in Luzerne County
. 65 - Age of oldest victim
. 20 - Age of youngest victim
. 38.6 - Average age
. 163 - Times the Wilkes-Barre Fire Dept. administered the opioid-reversal drug naloxone
. 162 - Patients treated for opioid overdose at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Plains Township
. 27 - Overdose patients treated at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital in Wilkes-Barre
Information from: The Citizens’ Voice, https://www.citizensvoice.com
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