RX for Danger: Fathers' painful bond — they lost sons to overdoses

CrimeDrug TraffickingDrug UseBusinessRecreational Substance UseOrange County Sheriff's Office

On Sept. 20, Dan Phillips broke into his son Chad's bedroom, found the 20-year-old unresponsive from a drug overdose and tried to revive him.

Eight days later, and just a few miles away, Jim Millar picked the lock to his 15-year-old's room and performed CPR on his son Sam, who had also overdosed.

The fathers — who didn't know each other before but whose sons were acquaintances — now share a painful bond: Their sons died because of the powerful prescription drugs they were addicted to.

"The pain that it has caused this family … is something that no parent should ever have to endure," Dan Phillips said. "I lost a piece of me that day. I'll never get that back."

Their journeys have not been easy. Both men were aware of their son's drug use. Both say they did everything they could think of to help their sons.

Phillips put a GPS device in Chad's vehicle, cleaned out the contacts in his cell phone, sent him to rehab. In the weeks before his death, Phillips kept his son by his side seven days a week.

Millar twice sent his son to a treatment program in North Carolina, but each time Sam returned to Orlando, he continued to use drugs.

Chad overdosed on oxycodone. Sam died of a combination of oxycodone, hydromorphone and alprazolam.

In 2010, 147 people — including Chad and Sam — died in Orange and Osceola counties because of accidental prescription-drug overdoses.

Sam was not the youngest victim. Last fall, Morgan Bell, a 14-year-old Brevard County girl, was dropped off after an oxycodone overdose at an Orlando hospital by a man later charged with molesting her.

Dan Phillips and Jim Millar both say parents need to educate themselves about prescription drugs. Until their own children overdosed, the men didn't know how deadly they could be.

"Our kids didn't think they were that bad," said Millar, who wants to use the money he saved to send Sam to college to help families in similar situations. "Unfortunately, we know the signs now."

The fathers' advice to other parents: Talk to your kids about the dangers of prescription-drug use. Make sure you know what your children are doing. Take action if you see signs of drug use. And don't believe anything the drug user tells you.

Carol Burkett, director of the Orange County Office for a Drug Free Community, said most parents are just like Phillips and Millar: They don't think their child would use drugs, let alone overdose. She applauded the fathers for their courage in sharing their sons' stories publicly.

"What they're doing is what helps parents the most," she said. "There's nothing better than to hear from a parent to another parent."

Phillips and Millar say their most important message to parents is: Never stop trying to save your child.

"I took a lot of wrath when he was here," Phillips said of Chad's anger — brought on by his father's prodding about his drug use. "Just never give up. Never give up."

Pharmacists aren't cops

They aren't trained to be cops.

They're trained to advise patients and health practitioners on medications, distribute prescription drugs and compound ingredients.

But pharmacists across Florida end up thwarting drug buys, intercepting fake prescriptions and have even been known to catch people in what appear to be drug deals outside their stores.

Pharmacists say they do what they can to prevent powerful, addictive drugs from getting into the wrong hands. They sometimes refuse to fill questionable prescriptions and can ultimately end up calling police.

At a recent prescription-drug-abuse work-group meeting organized by Orange County, national-pharmacy-chain representatives explained some of the measures they now take:

•Some stores won't fill prescriptions unless the person lives in that county. That's because drug abusers and dealers from outside Florida, often referred to as "pillbillies," doctor-shop in state and get their prescriptions here because it's easier than doing so in their hometowns.

•Some pharmacists visit local pain-management clinics from which they have seen a number of prescriptions to see whether the business appears legitimate or rogue.

Born addicted

They enter this world sickly and irritable. They sweat. They are stiff.

They are, essentially, born addicted to drugs because their mothers are users.

In hospitals across Florida, hundreds of newborns are treated for drug-withdrawal syndrome each year — a figure that has skyrocketed in recent years.

State data don't show which narcotics the babies are treated for, but doctors and nurses across Florida say the main culprit today is prescription drugs.

Data obtained by the Orlando Sentinel showed that in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, nearly 1,000 babies born in Florida hospitals were treated for drug-withdrawal syndrome. From 2006 to 2009, there was a 173 percent increase in such cases.

Janet Colbert, who works in the neonatal-intensive-care unit at a South Florida hospital and is a founding member of STOPP Now (Stop the Organized Pill Pushers), said it can take weeks, even months, to wean babies off of prescription drugs.

And when she sees more and more babies with the symptoms, Colbert said she thinks, "Why can't we do something about this?"

Colbert said the babies have an "earth-shattering" scream unlike other newborns'. Diarrhea causes their skin to break down.

"It's pretty pitiful," she said.

Law-enforcement approach

Patrol deputies find pills during traffic stops. Homicide detectives find bottles at death scenes. Narcotics agents find drug traffickers who used to sell cocaine are now dealing painkillers.

Fighting Florida's prescription-drug epidemic is no easy feat for law enforcement, particularly because the pills are legal to possess in most instances.

Central Florida law enforcers are aggressively going after street-level dealers and doctors, often in multiagency investigations. Prosecutors are filing an increasing number of cases for oxycodone and hydrocodone trafficking. About 12 percent of the Orange County Sheriff's Office's narcotic cases were related to prescription drugs in 2010, Sheriff Jerry Demings said, and so far this year, it's about 18 percent.

As in any drug case, investigators want to get to the source. In the prescription-drug battle, that means going after doctors.

"We're really trying to save lives and at the same time make it more difficult for an unscrupulous health-care professional … to get involved in that activity," Demings said.

In the past year, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation have arrested several Central Florida doctors accused of running pill mills. Those probes are time-consuming, complicated and can take up to one year for a single physician.

Undercover agents go to doctor's offices posing as patients to find out what type of evaluation the doctors perform, and their willingness to prescribe painkillers and sedatives.

In the case against Winter Park doctor Michael Moyer, ultimately arrested and charged with several counts of prescription-drug trafficking, agents sent a confidential informant into the physician's office three times. Each visit, MBI agents say, Moyer prescribed painkillers and muscle relaxers illegally and without a valid medical reason.

Communities hurt by pill mills

With its long lines and crowds loitering in the small parking lot, there were signs that the Pro Relief Center near downtownOrlando may not have been an ordinary doctor's office.

Orlando Commissioner Phil Diamond said he had received multiple complaints about the center, recently raided by drug agents as part of a yearlong pill-mill investigation.

Diamond said the pain clinic's customers — many of whom have criminal histories, according to Health Department records — were scaring people away from surrounding businesses on the busy portion of South Orange Avenue.

"It had a real negative impact on other businesses in the area," he said.

Many suspected pill mills and rogue pharmacies are not in medical plazas, but in commercial shopping centers throughout Central Florida.

Vicki Long, president of a neighborhood watch for the Little Lake Barton Shores community off Colonial Drive, said she noticed an increase in suspicious people driving through her neighborhood after A Stop Pain Management opened in a small strip mall nearby.

Long noticed many cars filling the parking lot and people counting money outside.

"It is just blatant," she said. She also attributes home and vehicle break-ins throughout the neighborhood to the pain clinic's customers.

The Department of Health ordered A Stop closed in February for violating state statutes that govern pain clinics.

But the business could be open again soon: The Agency for Health Care Administration issued it a health-care-clinic license last month.

apavuk@tribune.com or 407-420-5735

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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