The Tragic Toll of Rx-Drug Abuse
Joey Rovero was a muscular kid with a magnetic personality. An athletic teenager, he played club soccer and later football for the Grizzlies at California High School in San Ramon.
When he came home from Arizona State University for Thanksgiving in 2009, Joey, then 21, was his cheerful self as he talked with his parents, April and Joe, about his career plans after graduation in just six months. But three weeks later, Joey was dead, a casualty in the nationwide epidemic of prescription drug abuse.
“We were horrified,” said April Rovero, her voice faltering during a recent phone interview. “We were devastated. And we felt stupid.”
The Roveros were supportive, educated parents who talked openly with their two boys about the risks of illegal drugs and alcohol. Neither Joey nor his family had heard anything during his teen years about the dangers of prescription drugs.
“I wish the information was out there then, because I truly believe my son would still be alive,” April said.
Prescription drugs, sometimes mixed with alcohol or illegal drugs, killed 20,000 people nationwide in 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Of those, nearly 15,000 died due to prescription painkillers – a number which the CDC now says has reached epidemic levels. Painkiller abuse has skyrocketed over the last decade and now kills almost four times more people than it did in 1999, and more than those who die annually from heroin and cocaine combined.
The victims come from all demographics, and teens and young adults, especially white and Native American males, are not immune. One in five high school students has used prescription drugs nonmedically, according to a large CDC study in 2009.
Fitting in With the Crowd
As far as April and Joe Rovero knew, their son just loved a good time.
“He was an extremely well-liked kid, and everyone gravitated toward him,” April said. “He wanted to fit in and he did fit in. He was always going to go along with the crowd.”
That worried his mom and dad, and they kept close tabs on him and his friends as he grew up. But he was a good kid and had just one brush with the law for violating curfew.
At college in Phoenix, he joined a fraternity, and in his senior year moved in with fraternity brothers whom the Roveros later learned were abusing alcohol and prescription drugs. On Dec. 9, 2009, Joey and two friends drove to a specific doctor near Los Angeles. Joey reported feeling back and wrist pain and anxiety, and, after a cursory exam, the doctor prescribed for him the opioid painkiller Oxycodone, the anti-anxiety drug Alprazolam and a muscle relaxant.
A week later, Joey finished semester exams and, before heading home for the holidays, celebrated at a birthday party. He took a mix of the three prescribed drugs and alcohol. The drugs are central nervous system depressants, and although none of the individual dosages was lethal, together they shut down his breathing.
“Joey simply went to sleep and never woke up,” April said.
The surge in accidental prescription drug deaths like Joey’s follows a general increase in drugs prescribed by doctors, especially opioid painkillers, the CDC reports. Also fueling the problem is the growing black market for the drugs and a perception by Americans that prescriptions are not only safer than illicit drugs, but more socially acceptable.
Locally, Dr. Tonya Chaffee, a pediatrician with UC San Francisco and teen services director at San Francisco General Hospital, says she’s been hearing more often of local teens who are abusing prescriptions, sometimes combined with marijuana.
Contributing to the problem is the addictive nature of opioids like Oxycodone, which is known under brand names OxyContin and Percocet, among others, Chaffee says. Some of the young trauma patients she sees at the general hospital may become “addicted and not even know it. It’s hard to catch and hard to manage as a physician, because the patients are in pain.”
Doctors need to stress to their patients how addictive opioids are, Chaffee says. They should also thoroughly check for addiction signs before refilling prescriptions and prescribe alternative therapies and non-addicting painkillers when possible.
The doctor who gave Joey his fateful medicines now faces accusations from the Osteopathic Medical Board of California that she contributed to the overdoses and addictions of several patients. At the board’s behest, she closed her practice in November 2011.
Since Joey’s death, the Roveros have turned their anguish toward preventing the deaths of anyone else’s child due to prescription drugs.
In the first 18 months after her son’s death, April Rovero learned of seven or eight people in the Amador, Livermore and San Ramon valleys near her who died of prescription drug overdoses and about the same number at Arizona State University.
“At that point, there was no flow of information to the students and their parents about the issue,” Rovero said.
Rovero studied everything she could and, three months after her son overdosed, she sat down with ASU’s dean of students and several undergrads and insisted they educate their student body and parents. Since then, she and ASU administrators have worked to develop an awareness model that other schools can follow.
One important message that needs to get out, Rovero said, is that prescription drug abusers often don’t look at all like stereotypical drug users.
Prescription drug abuse “is affecting many bright kids and kids from well-to-do areas. These kids would never think to go on the streets to get heroin, but they have no problem taking OxyContin from the medicine cabinet.”
New users and those who only abuse prescription drugs on occasion, like Joey, frequently fall victim, she adds.
The Roveros saw a need for a group solely devoted to the issue. In March 2010, they formed the nonprofit National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse (NCAPDA). It started as a family affair – with April, Joe and their older son, Jim Hansen, as directors – but it has grown to include five more directors, four staffers, several advisors and a host of parents who’ve lost kids to prescription drugs.
Creating an informative website was among the new group’s first tasks. On its home page, the site teaches the signs of abuse, such as slurred speech, temper outbursts and changes in mood, school performance and sleep habits. It also tells how to recognize overdose symptoms such as agitation, difficulty breathing and tremors. If caught early enough, some overdoses can be stopped through emergency medical treatment.
NCAPDA has been working to inform parents that one essential step they should take is to dispose of unused medicines and lock the rest up. Most people who die from an overdose are taking someone else’s medicines – either stolen from medicine cabinets or obtained from dealers who “doctor shop” at different clinics for as many prescriptions as they can get, the CDC reports.
Sixty-four percent of kids ages 12 to 17 who’ve abused pain relievers say they got them from their friends or family, usually without their knowledge, according to www.drugfree.org. While many abusers start by taking a pill, they often progress to smoking and injecting the medicine and sometimes move to illicit drugs.
In its first two years, NCAPDA has teamed up with schools, community and medical groups, law enforcement and other agencies to raise awareness. It has held youth poster contests and informational events, including two that it organized this past March.
It has also has been fighting for legislation to curb abuse, including a 2010 bill that sought to raise revenue and enhance the state’s poorly funded prescription drug database. Medics use the database to monitor drug dispensation and stop drug dealers who are doctor shopping and physicians who are overprescribing.
The bill ultimately failed, and NCAPDA is now helping circulate a proposed ballot measure to pay for the database through a temporary tax on prescriptions. Passage of the measure by voters in November would bring the Roveros one step closer to saving lives in Joey’s honor.
“At least then, something positive will have come from the death of our precious son,” April Rovero said.
Angela Geiser is a freelance writer and mother of two.
Notinmyhouse.drugfree.org – Offers tips and facts for parents.
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