COLUMBUS, Ohio – Some 91 people die every day in America from opioid overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, this week the CDC said the actual number is likely much higher. The bulk of those deaths are from heroin.
To a lesser degree, people are dying from other kinds of opioids, such as heroin's chemical cousins, prescription painkillers. This epidemic is touching every community in every state in the country.
The crisis is particularly devastating in Ohio, where 11 percent of the nation's heroin deaths occur.
The Picture Says It All
Police in Liverpool, Ohio snapped a heartbreaking and shocking photo of a helpless, wide-eyed four-year-old in a van on the side of the road. His grandmother and her boyfriend in the front seat both had overdosed on heroin. Police say they posted the picture on the department's Facebook page to illustrate the severity of the heroin epidemic in Ohio. People overdosing on heroin in broad daylight, in public, in front of children is far too common these days.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine says although heroin is everywhere, it's especially prevalent in rural areas. It's transforming wholesome, small towns across the Buckeye state. For example, in Marion, one of the hardest hit areas, police responded to 12 overdoses in just three days.
Matt Gossard is from Marion. Despite his devoutly Christian upbringing as a pastor's son, he was hooked on heroin for five years.
"I didn't care about my family, I didn't care about my job, I didn't care about school, I dropped out. My life was dedicated to chasing drugs," he recalled. "I would go to a bar, find the biggest guy there and punch him in the face and hope I get beat up so I can feel some pain. Because I was just dead inside. And the drugs, they just completely deaden any emotions you have."
Like three-fourths of all heroin addicts, Matt first became addicted to prescription pain pills. A former paratrooper, he suffered a painful injury during a training jump.
"They just literally started shoving painkillers down my throat. And it was enough to bring down a rhinoceros. And I took them."
Matt says his story is typical. "At first you take them because you are in pain. But then it gets its hooks in you. And all the sudden, before you even know it, you're dependent upon it. And your body is telling you, 'I need more, I need more, I need more' and you obey your body because if you don't have it, you get sick,” he said.
When Matt could no longer easily obtain prescription pain pills, he switched to heroin. "Because it's almost the same thing, except heroin is stronger and cheaper and more available, which is the scary part," he said.
Heroin: The Perfect Business Model
Attorney General DeWine created a special heroin unit to tackle Ohio's heroin epidemic. He says it no longer comes from faraway places like Afghanistan.
"A number of years ago, the Mexican cartels decided to grow the poppies there, they process it there, they turn it into heroin, they bring it across our southern border and bring it into Ohio and into other states," he said. "And I call it a perfect business model. What starts as a $10 a day habit winds up being a thousand-dollar a day habit. You may end up taking a hundred times what you took the first day."
DeWine says drug dealers are becoming even more sinister by selling the synthetic opioid Fentanyl, which is even deadlier than heroin, either mixed with heroin or on its own. To make matters worse, the elephant tranquilizer Carfentanil, used by zoos, is being laced into heroin or sold outright.
"We'll see sometimes in a weekend, one community, where there'll be five, 10, 15 people die," DeWine said.
DeWine's team is making headway catching the bad guys. But he says Ohio will never be able to "arrest itself out of the problem." He says education and prevention are key and advocates age-appropriate awareness at every grade level beginning in kindergarten.
Reaching out to Churches
DeWine also established a statewide program to enlist the faith community. DeWine has met with church leaders on eight separate occasions to ask for their help with prevention and treatment.
"What we see is that the programs that work, the treatment that works, many times has a faith-based component part to it," DeWine said.
Matt Gossard can vouch for that. After a number of failed attempts to quit heroin, it was a Christian treatment center that finally made the difference.
"I believe that Jesus Christ is the only answer. I believe that there is no other answer, other than Christ."
He remembers his turning point. "I started to pray. And I was thinking about all the horrible things I had done in my life and I said, 'If I was the only person on earth, would Jesus still have come and died just for me?' And that night was the first time God ever spoke to me. He said, 'Yes, son, I would have.’"
Matt now leads Champions Network, a Christ-centered recovery ministry. He is working with the attorney general and pastors across Ohio to ensure each church in the state has its own addiction specialist. "There is somebody in every church in this state that's been affected by addiction. I guarantee it," he said.
Attacking the Root Problem
At the state capitol in Columbus, officials are clamping down on where many believe heroin addiction starts: in the doctor's office. Now physicians may only prescribe one week's worth of painkillers or risk losing their license to practice medicine. This only applies to prescriptions to treat short-term pain, called acute pain, such as the type patients experience after surgery. Doctors typically prescribe one month's worth of painkillers for acute pain, when research shows patients only need them for one to three days after their operation.
A Perfect Storm
DeWine says many doctors who over-prescribe painkillers today are responding to pressure from years ago to better treat it. At that time, physicians were criticized for not doing enough to diminish patients' pain. Combine that with what DeWine calls “misinformation” they received from drug representatives.
"We had a number of pharmaceutical companies that developed pain meds and they were pushing those out and they were telling the doctors, 'These are not very addictive.' Turns out they are very addictive," DeWine said.
The new law cracking down on the number of pain pills Ohio doctors may prescribe does not apply to physicians prescribing pain pills for patients dealing with chronic or long-term pain such as arthritis or back pain.
Pain Pill Alternatives
However, even though it's allowed, is treating chronic pain with opioids the right treatment?
Dr. Vibhor Krishna, a neurosurgeon at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, one of the world's leading centers for neuromodulation, performs an operation that relieves back and leg pain. He implants a neurostimulator on the spine that's connected to a pacemaker sending intermittent pulses to the stimulator, which block the pain impulse.
"A typical patient is someone who has had back surgery before, are still having back pain and leg pain and are taking a significant amount of pain medications, said Dr. Krishna, "And the idea behind this therapy is to either block pain impulses or decrease someone's overall pain level, improve their disability from pain and decrease their pain medication as well."
Andrea Flannery had chronic back pain. "It was all the time. I never had any time without pain, some kind of pain. I mean, it might ease up a little bit, but constant pain," she recalled.
She refused to take opioids.
"It's too easy to get hooked on the pain medicine," she said, "I know a lot of people that have, and it destroys your life."
So she opted for surgery with Dr. Krishna and is now pain-free. "It's been night and day," she smiled, "It's been wonderful. I don't even really notice that I have it in. You get used to the feeling."
Dr. Krishna believes in addition to surgery, there are a number of other methods to reduce pain without taking opioids such as losing weight, exercising (especially swimming), building muscle, acupuncture, heat, steroid injections and an anti-inflammatory diet (high in vegetables and low in sugar).
Dr. Krishna said not only can long-term use of opioids cause constipation and cognitive problems such as memory loss, he believes over time, they fail to suppress pain.
"You get accustomed to it," he explained, "And so these pain medications are not that effective if you take them long term. Plus, what it does, is it inhibits the body's own pain control system."
So while the heroin crisis rages in the Buckeye State, Ohioans are fighting back with awareness, Christ-centered treatment and decreasing the use of pain pills.