Opioid Safety Starts With You

deaths from prescription opioids
Heidi Stolte

By Suzi Stolte, Director of Marketing and Communications
JP Prescription Drug Awareness Foundation

The call came late on a Saturday night – come quickly, something’s wrong. Pulling into the parking lot of the apartment complex, the flashing lights from multiple emergency vehicles were blinding. As we dashed up the stairs to the second floor, the firemen and EMT personnel were descending and the somber looks on their faces reflected what we would learn when we reached our daughter’s apartment – she was dead.

Losing One’s Child

The unexpected death of a loved one is always painful.  The unexpected death of one’s child is an indescribable shock. Having that child taken by a senseless epidemic is unconscionable.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has declared deaths from prescription opioids an epidemic, one that is taking more lives than car accidents and street drugs such as heroin and cocaine.  In May 2011, this epidemic took the life of my daughter, Heidi Stolte.  Heidi was 37; a beautiful, kind and caring young woman who dedicated her life to helping those in need get the housing and medical services they needed to improve their lives.  The exact cause of Heidi’s death was “mixed drug toxicity”, the result of taking an opioid (a pain killer) with benzodiazepine, (a common depression medication).  Both drugs were appropriately prescribed by physicians and dispensed at licensed pharmacies.  However, nowhere along the way did anyone explain the dangers of taking those two classes of drugs together.

The Deaths are Just the Tip of the Iceberg

deaths from prescription opioidsUnfortunately, Heidi’s story is not uncommon. Every day, over 40 people die from prescription painkiller overdoses, a number that has risen 313 percent in the past decade. And, the deaths are just the tip of the iceberg. For every person who dies, 10 are admitted for treatment due to addiction, 32 end up in the emergency room and 130 people abuse the drug they were prescribed. Then there are the economic costs, which are estimated to be $78.5 billion annually in lost productivity, health care cost and criminal justice expenditures.

These staggering numbers, combined with my own personal loss, have made me a vocal champion for public education regarding opioids.  When Heidi died in 2011, deaths from these pain killers generally only made headlines when celebrities were involved. Most people, me among them, had no idea that people in all walks of life were being affected and that pills meant to help patients deal with pain issues had the potential to lead to addiction and death.

An Introduction to Opioids

Heidi’s introduction to opioids began when she was in a car accident and hurt her back. While her back pain improved, she was never really pain free and she often experienced flare ups that made the pain unbearable.  Each time the doctor would prescribe more opioids. When she saw a different doctor regarding her depression, she was prescribed a benzodiazepine. On the Friday before her death, she returned to the doctor because of ongoing neck and back pain and left with a prescription for Oxycodone.  On Saturday, she took that medication along with her prescribed Xanax, went into respiratory distress and died.

At the time of Heidi’s death, there was little work being done to educate consumers about the dangers of opioids or to address opioid misuse and abuse.  Today I’m happy to say that Colorado is one of the leaders in addressing this issue and I’m pleased to be involved with two groups – the JP Prescription Drug Awareness Foundation (www.jpawarenessfoundation.org) and the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention (www.corxconsortium.org) – that are working relentlessly to stop the senseless deaths.

Safe Usage of Opioids

I want to be clear that I’m not against the use of opioids. These drugs have legitimate uses and are helpful to patients dealing with pain. It is, however, critical that the public be knowledgeable about the safe use, storage and safe disposal of these drugs.

Safe Use

Opioids are a class of drugs that act on the nervous system to relieve pain. They are generally safe when taken as prescribed for short periods of time. They do, however, have the potential to be addictive if misused or if taken for extended periods.  They are also extremely dangerous if taken with benzodiazepines- a class of drugs commonly used to treat anxiety – or if used with alcohol. If you are prescribed an opioid, be sure to take it as prescribed and to tell your physician about any other medications – prescribed or over the counter – that you are taking. Be aware that taking opioids for long periods of time can alter the brain’s neural pathways creating the need to take more medication to achieve the same level of pain relief and setting up the potential for addiction. It is also important that people do not share their drugs with others.  Sixty-eight percent of people who abuse prescription pain killers get them from a friend or family member. While it may seem harmless to give a friend who is in pain an opioid, it can be dangerous and even deadly depending on other medications the person may be taking.

Safe Storage

Because of the potential for misuse of opioids, it is important that patients store their medications securely.  Why? Because statistics show that 7% of people who misuse or abuse prescription pain killers steal them.  Colorado has a great resource, www.takemedsseriously.org, that provides a plethora of information about how to store your medications out of the reach of children, family members or guests and where to purchase lock boxes. Look for the “Safe Storage” tab.

Safe Disposal

Unused or expired medications should be properly disposed at an authorized drug take-back location. Colorado has over 70 permanent take-back locations located throughout the state.  To find one near you, visit www.takemedsseriously.org and look for the “Safe Disposal” tab.

Deaths from the prescription opioid epidemic can be reduced if consumers take time to educate themselves about the safe use, safe storage and safe disposal of opioid prescriptions.  Remember, every person who dies from this epidemic is someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, son or daughter.  Educate yourself so that one of those deaths is not you or someone you love.

For more information visit  www.jpprescriptionfoundation.org, www.takemedseriously.org or contact me at [email protected]