It was the evening of Easter Sunday and extended family had left for the night. Trisha (who asked that her last name not be used) called down to her 26-year-old son with a question. There was no response. He had been living in her Colorado Springs home, and she hadn’t heard him leave.
“I went downstairs and he was completely out of it on the floor. I kept calling his name but there was no response. Nothing,” she said. “He was still breathing but I got on top and was shaking him to wake him up. I called 911 and the operator walked me through CPR.
“I was so frantic. It seemed like forever for the ambulance to get there. I don’t know how long it took them.
“It’s the most horrible thing I’ve had to go through — to try to save your own kid’s life. You feel helpless.”
When help finally arrived, Trisha dropped to her knees, physically and emotionally exhausted.
It was the second time in two months Trisha’s son had overdosed on heroin. A star athlete in high school, he had been prescribed prescription painkillers before leaving to play baseball on scholarship in Kansas. He returned home as an addict without a degree.
According to drug abuse and law enforcement experts, heroin and opioid abuse go hand in hand, as those who abuse prescription opioid-based narcotics often move on to heroin when the prescription or the ability to pay for the expensive drugs runs dry.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 90 Americans die from opioid overdoses every day. NIDA considers abuse of the drug a “national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate the total economic burden of prescription opioid misuse in the U.S. at $78.5 billion a year. That takes into consideration the costs of health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment and involvement of the criminal justice system.
And while Colorado has not reached the levels of opioid- and heroin-related deaths seen in New England and Rust Belt states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, the problem is growing worse locally, with southern Colorado leading other sections of the state.
“When we first started to be aware heroin was making a comeback here, it was brought to our attention through the high schools,” said Lt. Mark Comte of the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence unit. “That was maybe nine years ago, and it’s been creeping up ever since. I think we’re getting toward the peak of this problem in the community at large.”
According to Comte, there’s about a 70 percent correlation between prescription opioid abuse and heroin use, and most who abuse prescriptions get (or steal) medications from someone they know.
“A lot of what happens is opioids are taken from a medicine cabinet, or a kid breaks their leg and shares it at school,” he said.
And while the demographic for opioid and heroin use once slowed beyond age 25, Comte said today he’s seeing more users in their 30s and 40s.
According to figures released in July by the Colorado Consortium on Prescription Drug Abuse, Colorado sees about 600 drug overdose deaths a year.
“Since 2003, more overdose deaths have involved opioids than heroin and cocaine combined,” according to the report titled “Prescription Drug Abuse in Colorado: Scope and Impact of the Problem.”
Between 2013 and 2015, El Paso County fell in the middle quintile for the state for opioid overdoses per 100,000 people — between 5.4 and 6.6 fatalities.
The problem is worse in Pueblo County, with as many as 9.6 deaths per 100,000. Otero and Las Animas counties led the state with a rate of as many as 13.5 fatalities per 100,000, according to the consortium’s figures. The southern half of the state contains counties with the highest rates of overdose hospitalizations in Colorado, and El Paso County falls in the middle of the pack.
But Mary Steiner, community program manager with Community Health Partnership, said the problem is becoming more dire here. Steiner is coordinator of the CHP-sponsored Coalition for Prevention, Addiction Education and Recovery.
“It’s getting worse,” she said. “We’re not as bad as Ohio and states back East, who have some 4,000 overdose deaths a year. We’re not there, but one thing we emphasize is the importance of mitigating so we don’t get to that point.”
The opioid epidemic doesn’t know any race or socioeconomic boundaries, Steiner said.
“There are people who start with an opioid prescription and, without knowing how addictive it is, become addicted. If cut off from their prescription medication, that’s where we see the move to heroin,” she said.
The coalition has six work groups addressing the issue: one examining access to treatment, another pushing public awareness, one for survivor education, a public safety group, a data group and a family-and-friends group helping those impacted by an addict.
“We recognize we can come up with all kinds of recommendations, but until we come up with a readiness assessment to know what the community is ready to implement, it won’t do any good to propose something like a needle exchange program if we’re not ready to support something like that,” she said.
The assessment is expected to be released in February.
In 2013, the El Paso County Public Board of Health rejected calls for the creation of Colorado Springs’ first needle exchange program, fearing it would encourage intravenous drug use.
Steiner said Colorado Springs is one of the only communities on the Front Range without such a program.
“There’s a bigger picture. It’s part of harm reduction,” she said. “But it’s not just a one-for-one [needle] exchange. There’s also a counseling component with the hope that, at some point, they’ll be ready to go into treatment.”
Steiner said she is also trying to involve professionals in the community, a demographic that has also been impacted directly and indirectly by opioid and heroin use.
“We have tried to get the business sector engaged because opioids don’t care,” she said. “If you have employees who have been injured and are taking opioids, that’s a work safety issue. It’s something workplaces need to be aware of as well.”
In fact, the National Safety Council has a calculator so users can estimate the impact of substance abuse on their industry.
For instance, an owner of a Colorado construction company employing 40 people will lose $19,247 a year due to employee substance abuse. That breaks down to $7,616 in lost time, $6,139 in job turnover and retraining and $5,492 in added health care costs.
‘No one talks about it’
Following his overdose on Easter Sunday, Trisha’s son regained consciousness while paramedics stood over him in his mother’s home. He refused to be taken to the hospital. The next day, however, Patricia convinced him to go with her to Springs Recovery Connection on the city’s Westside.
There he met Cathy Plush, the nonprofit’s executive director.
While many rehabilitation options can be extraordinarily expensive, Plush said, her organization exists to listen to addicts and their families and help them navigate the system toward wellness — for free.
“When you walk in the door, you will talk to somebody in recovery or the parent of someone in recovery — someone who has walked that walk and can guide you,” she said. “We offer peer recovery coaching, community education and some support programs. You’re not going to fill out paperwork; we won’t talk about money or who your insurance is.
“But we saw a need in this community,” she added. “A lot of people don’t know what to do.”
It was through hours of phone calls that Plush was able to find a place for Trisha’s son. He checked into a rehabilitation facility outside Denver and has even found employment thanks to the recovery program.
“I’m very hopeful,” Trisha said, having already experienced one unsuccessful and very expensive try at rehab. “This time he went on his own. When he went, he was so tired of this lifestyle.”
Trisha said she never would have predicted opioid or heroin use impacting her community, let alone her own family.
“I grew up here in Colorado Springs,” she said. “I never knew that heroin was an issue. Even as my kids went through high school, they didn’t drink or smoke or do drugs.”
But Trisha said stories in support meetings now begin to sound all too familiar.
“The people I have confided in that my son is a heroin addict — I hear, ‘Oh, so is my sister.’ ‘Oh, so is my daughter.’ Everyone I’ve met says they have an addict in their family. But no one talks about it because of the shame and embarrassment. It’s a horrible drug, but nobody talks about it. … And there are not enough resources to help people here. Unfortunately, you don’t find that out until you have an addict.”