Overdose deaths spike as heroin
ENTERPRISE STAFF WRITER
Deborah Pendergast woke to the snores coming from her 24-year-old son's bedroom.
Members of Learn to Cope, a support group for local families with loved ones battling addiction, hold a vigil on Route 18 in Abington in November.
(Craig Murray/The Enterprise)
And then it went silent.
By the time she reached the door, it was too late. Her youngest son, Robert Pendergast Jr., was dead of a heroin overdose.
In the early hours of May 2, 2005, Pendergast, of East Bridgewater, became one of the dozens of young people to die of a heroin overdose in the region since 2004.
Young adults throughout the region who experimented with OxyContin, the powerful prescription painkiller, are now experimenting - and getting hooked - on heroin.
And the drug is taking a deadly hold.
Seventy-four people have died of opiate-related overdoses - including heroin - between Jan. 1, 2004 and Aug. 31, 2006, an examination by The Enterprise of death certificates filed in 28 local communities found.
Of those deaths:
Three out of five - or 43 individuals - lived in the suburbs. Twelve, or 16 percent, were under age 25.
Sixteen were tied to OxyContin, and its chief ingredient oxycodone, which experts are calling the gateway drug to heroin addiction.
and the deaths are continuing. Since September, more than a dozen others have died of suspected overdoses.
- An 18-year-old Abington girl, found at home in December, six months after graduating from high school.
- A 24-year-old Rockland man, found in the woods in October three weeks after leaving a drug rehab program.
- A 22-year-old Whitman man, found at home in November.
- A 23-year-old Hanover man, found Thanksgiving Day on his bathroom floor.
Many more have overdosed and survived.
From 2003-2005, 2,682 people from this region were treated in emergency rooms for opioid-related abuse, dependency or poisoning, according to the Massachusetts Division of Health Care Finance and Policy.
Those numbers tell only part of the story.
In Whitman, fire department emergency medical technicians responded to 20 overdoses from September to November; one person died.
In Easton, the narcotic-antidote Narcan was administered in nearly half of the overdose calls - 10 out of 21 - by fire department EMTs last year, Easton Fire Chief Thomas F. Stone said.
And in Abington, 91 residents were treated at emergency rooms in opioid-related cases between 2003 and 2005, according to state records.
Heroin - once seen as just a problem among the city poor - is moving up and out.
"These people are not dirt bags," said Hanover's Theresa Cairo, whose daughter, Jill, died of an overdose at age 24. "They are intelligent, beautiful people. It is someone who looks like your daughter. It is someone who could be your daughter."
Desperate families are turning to the courts in increased numbers, pleading with judges to arrest and commit their children to treatment programs for up to 30 days. Attendance at one support group for parents with addicted children, Learn to Cope, doubled in three years, from 25 to 50, and nearly 300 people now log onto their online message board.
The number of beds in drug detoxification and treatment programs increased - along with state funding - in the past two years, and officials say the beds are filling up as soon as they're empty. Many entering those programs are heroin addicts in their early 20s from middle and upper-class, two-parent homes, who first got hooked on OxyContin, officials say.
"It has no psychological profile, it has no socioeconomic profile," said Dr. Michael L. Dern, a Brockton physician who has treated young heroin addicts.
While one national survey found the percentage of high school students who admit using heroin at least once is dropping, the number of college students and young adults who used the drug between 2004 and 2005 remained steady. Even more troubling for the future, OxyContin abuse among eighth-graders nearly doubled since 2002 - from 1.3 percent in 2002 to 2.6 percent last year - raising the specter of yet another wave of heroin addicts in the next few years.
The link between OxyContin abuse by teens and heroin addiction is a strong one. Several recovering addicts said they got "high" on OxyContin while in high school, got hooked, then turned to heroin when buying the OxyContin on the street got too expensive.
"It is alarming," said Abington Police Chief David Majenski. "We have made a tremendous amount of heroin arrests and it is not slowing down at all."
One indication is in Abington, where a church group meets every Thursday to pray for 240 people who are addicted to heroin, or have died from an overdose.
"We have a prayer list," said Lee-ann Trigler, a member of Joy of Christ Church in Abington. "People in every community are praying."
Maureen Boyle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org