By McLain Hirschbuhl
The Philadelphia region is in the midst of a crisis of epidemic proportions.
This epidemic has killed or destroyed thousands of lives, regardless of age, race, or income — from affluent, suburban high school students, to working professionals, to impoverished inner city families.
All it takes to start down that path of destruction are a few pills from the family medicine closet or a prescription from your doctor to treat a painful injury.
The tremendous number of opioids that teens and adults have access to is what has caused this recent scourge of addiction.
Opioids such as Vicodin and Oxycodone are powerful drugs that medical professionals often prescribe as painkillers. These drugs provide dopamine to the nervous system, which gives the body a feeling of euphoria, much like naturally occurring endorphins do.
Almost 2 million Americans abused or were addicted to prescription opioids in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Over 15,000 people nationwide have died from prescription opioid overdoses in the past year alone, according to the CDC, and the situation has now been declared a crisis by President Trump.
Because opioids are so addictive and expensive, those who take them can easily become hooked on heroin. This is because heroin, which is also classified as an opioid, is much cheaper and more accessible.
The Philadelphia region has been one of the hardest hit areas in the country. In the past year, fatal drug overdoses have spiked by over 50 percent, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Chester County, where Woodlynde School is located, has seen fatal drug overdoses rise by 38 percent, while nearby Bucks County has experienced a 65 percent increase over the last year.
“Opioids are so dangerous. I don’t think that most people understand how easy it can be to become addicted to a pain medicine that is prescribed by doctors,” Woodlynde School Counselor Ms. Szmajda said.
Some users suffer such an uncontrollable craving for the next high that they will lie and steal from their families and sacrifice their jobs, money, and even possessions to get their hands on more drugs.
“Opioids can take away your money, your relationships, everything that is important to you…and ultimately your life,” Ms. Szmajda said. “It’s something you just can’t start because you might not stop.”
This epidemic doesn't just affect drug addicts and reckless people. Getting hooked on opioids could happen to anyone, including good, honest, hardworking students and adults who have been prescribed painkillers after an injury or surgery.
Mrs. Corrar, Assistant Director of Clinical Services, works with people who have an opioid addiction at Center City Rehab Hospital.
“I would say 80 percent of my clients right now have an [opioid] diagnosis,” said Mrs. Corrar, who is the daughter of Technology teacher Mrs. Rottinger.
Mrs. Corrar sees first-hand the effects of the opioid epidemic, where drug addicts ever in search of a more powerful high are using heroin mixed with the extremely dangerous drug fentanyl.
Fentanyl is “a powerful synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“It is scary, and yes, it is getting worse,” Mrs. Corrar said about the opioid epidemic. “Especially with fentanyl increasingly sold to heroin buyers, the overdoses have increased tremendously.
“Luckily, though, resources such as Narcan (used for the complete or partial reversal of overdoses) are becoming more widely available as the public starts to recognize this as a health crisis.”
Doylestown resident Richard McDonald was shocked to encounter the opioid epidemic right where he worked.
“I used to own an apartment in Doylestown that I used as an art studio. One morning, I got there and found heroin needles outside of the stairs to my studio and I thought it was insulin that wasn't disposed of properly. My neighbor explained to me that the local high schoolers would shoot up out here,” he said.
“I couldn't help but think that there are kids there no older than my grandson and they’re involved with these drugs.”
How Painkillers Destroyed One Family
This true story about the horrors of opioid addiction was written by a Woodlynde teacher who wishes to remain anonymous, due to the sensitive nature of the information.
I was raised in an average middle-class family with five brothers and sisters. My older brother raised four children. Two of them are currently in rehab again, struggling with years of opioid addiction.
Their struggles began in their mid-twenties when they were living on their own. These were two well-adjusted, young adults that unfortunately happened to be in the car when a drunk driver plowed into them. Little did they know that this was going to be the beginning of a long struggle when the doctor prescribed both of them opioids for their pain relief.
My brother spent years building a successful business and when his son was born, my brother’s plans were to leave the business to him after he retired.
The past few years have proved my brother wrong. Not only did my nephew lose his license and his new truck, but things started disappearing from the business. His son was selling these missing things to support his habit. Stealing from his own father that he loved so much and who provided him a wonderful job and eventually the business.
I think initially my brother was in denial. Not my son…how could he have a drug problem? He wasn’t even a partier.
Reality hit when both my niece and nephew ended up in jail. When the prescriptions stopped coming from the doctor (which was way too long to be on prescription painkillers), they were both addicted and went looking for the cheap fix… heroin, which eventually landed them in prison.
It’s been a long, hard struggle for the entire family because no one is really sure how this will all end, and since the recovery rate from heroin is in the single digits, it’s tough to think about their futures.
Neither one of them wanted this or would have ever imagined this in their futures. I feel they are innocent participants in a terrible epidemic.
I pray for their successful recovery every day.
Painkillers Can Lead to Heroin Addiction
By McLain Hirschbuhl
People often dismiss opioids as safe simply because they are prescribed by doctors. However, most people don't realize that these opioids are highly addictive and can lead to even more lethal substances like heroin.
Most opioids provide pain relief and an overall good feeling. Therefore, they are often provided as painkillers when a patient suffers an injury, such as from a fall or a car accident. After a while, the body gets used to having opioids. This leads to addiction and a reliance on heavier doses.
Patients are later cut off from opioids by their doctors, once their pain level has decreased. But by then it may be too late, as they have become addicted.
They will then seek to buy the pills from dealers. However, these drugs are extremely expensive and can cost $5 to $30 for a single pill, according to streetrx.com and researchgate.net. Since addicts often need numerous pills a day to feed their habit, this can cost up to hundreds of dollars per day.
As a result, users can quickly become desperate for money. They will then seek out much harder and cheaper substances like heroin, which is extremely dangerous and addictive.
They end up spending their time trying to earn or steal enough money to pay for the next high. When users become dependent, they also build a tolerance and then start to require larger doses of heroin. This puts them in even more danger of overdosing.
“My brother’s friend died from a heroin overdose,” junior Declan Arnott said. “He overdosed in a McDonald's bathroom. I played rugby with him for a few years and grew to admire his athleticism.”
In Upper Darby, a 16-year-old girl overdosed on heroin in a hotel in late October, according to the Delaware County Daily Times. Her life had been dominated by drugs and was destroyed by opioids.
This epidemic isn’t only affecting neighborhoods. It also has been infecting local schools.
“My district high school has a nickname, called ‘The Pharmacy’ [for all the drugs that circulate through it],” said an Upper School student who wished to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.
“I am glad I don’t attend the high school because I wouldn’t want to get involved with those who are doing it,” he said.
When asked what advice he would give about opioids, the student said, “If you know someone is doing opioids, you need to tell someone right away, because they might end up getting severely hurt.”
If you or someone you know is abusing opioids
or any other substance, you can speak with
Woodlynde School Counselor Ms. Szmajda.
Or you can get help by calling 800-448-3000 to get connected with crisis counseling.
This true story about the horrific
effects of opioid addiction was written by a Woodlynde teacher who asked to remain anonymous, due to the sensitive nature of the information.
Two people in my family [in their late teens/twenties] were impacted by addiction to pain medication prescribed by doctors.
In both cases, the doctors were well-intentioned, but thought that the dose of medicine they were prescribing wouldn’t lead to addiction. One person was experiencing chronic pain from headaches. The other person had a back problem.
When they were taking the opioids (pain medication), they felt better for a while, so they thought nothing was wrong. Eventually, they felt that they needed more medication more often to keep the pain under control. They didn’t realize that their bodies and brains were becoming addicted.
They were both afraid to get help because they thought that the doctor wouldn’t believe them, that they wouldn’t be able to function at school or at work, and that people would think they were “losers.”
Both people were able to go through withdrawal and not lose their lives, but it was a close call for each of them.
Even now, in spite of knowing their history, doctors will try to prescribe opioids after a procedure, saying, “Oh, you can’t get addicted if you take them for just a few days.”
Both people were in their late teens/twenties when this happened. That is an age when you feel a lot of stress and anxiety, and you are more likely to like the feeling of relief when you first take opioids.
What you need to know is that in as short a period as a week or two, that relief can turn into a craving and you find yourself needing to take pills sooner than before or more often.
If you think there might be a problem or your friends think there might be a problem — there is definitely a problem. You need help to get off the opioids and find someone reputable to help you learn new ways to manage stress or pain.
If your doctor doesn’t take you seriously, go to a counselor, a trusted relative or friend, or another doctor until you get the help you need.
[A third person in my family], related by marriage, unfortunately couldn’t stop taking opioids and overdosed and died in his twenties. He thought he could manage it, but tragically he was wrong.
Woodlynde Is Taking Steps to Avoid Opioids
By McLain Hirschbuhl
Because it can be found in many people's medicine cabinets, there is a concern about students taking opioids from their home to get high. However, School Counselor Ms. Szmajda said, as of now, Woodlynde has not experienced the same problems that other schools have had regarding opioid abuse.
Woodlynde has been putting a great deal of effort into keeping students clean. For example, the school brought in a guest speaker earlier this year to talk about the dangers of opioid use.
Even so, Ms. Szmajda expressed concern over the possibility of these narcotics finding their way into Woodlynde. “I worry about our students, for sure, because there is a huge link between prescription drugs -- for real things like an injury, or after a surgery — and stronger narcotics,” she said.
However, if anything were to happen, Woodlynde has a drug policy in place to help someone who is using opioids or any other narcotics, if need be. Ms. Szmajda said this policy is not about punishing students but trying to find help for them.