This is the second in a series of in-depth reports from 10 On Your Side dealing with the opioid crisis. We will examine several aspects of this epidemic through the personal stories of people in Hampton Roads each Wednesday through May 24.
HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – The United States has more than 300 million people, about 5 percent of the world’s population. However, the U.S. consumes more than 80 percent of the world's Oxycodone, and 95 percent of the world's hydrocodone, better known as Vicodin.
Medical experts point to that disproportionate use of pain relievers as a key factor for the growing numbers of opioid addiction and death.
“You'll start taking two. Two doesn't do it anymore. So then you need three or four,” said Chris Wanzelak, who is recovering from addiction with the help of Right Path Treatment Center in Virginia Beach. “Then you find yourself needing a stronger drug.”
Wanzelak started taking Vicodin when he tore shoulder ligaments 20 years ago. Before long, he was addicted.
“And then the lines get blurred. Are you taking it because you are in pain, or are you taking it because you like the way you felt?”
On Father's Day nine years ago, that addiction became undeniable. Wanzelak was feeling what addicts call “dope sick” -- when they need the drug they crave.
“And my three year old daughter comes up and hands me her card with her mother, and I'm lying in bed, sick. You know, that's horrible. But that's the point where it just smacks you in the face.”
Bonnie Burton was diagnosed with endometriosis in her late teens, and she had already been suffering from migraines.
“So, that right there got me started on the opiates,” Burton said.
Burton was living in Florida, and addictive pain pills were everywhere.
“All I had to do was walk out my front door to find opiates. That's how easy it [was].”
Like Wanzelak, she soon was taking more pills and stronger drugs.
“Tylox and Tylenol 3. Then they become baby stuff and you graduate to Percocet.”
The path to addiction for both Bonnie and Chris started with legitimate prescriptions.
In other cases, adolescents and even young children get curious. Dr. David Langille, an addiction recovery specialist at Right Path, says he has worked with opioid addicts as young as 11.
“They steal mommy and daddy's pills, or their aunt and uncle's pills, or they'll go to a party and somebody will have some powder.”
Dr. Ben Fickenscher at Chesapeake Regional has examined the history and the causes for the opioid epidemic -- and he says too many pain pills are the prime cause. Fickenscher says more than 300 million prescriptions were written last year alone in the United States.
“We prescribe enough opiates for every American to have their own bottle of pills.”
Data from the DEA shows that while the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, we consume 80 percent of the world's Oxycodone, and 95 percent of the world's hydrocodone, better known as Vicodin.
Fickenscher says that wasn't always the case.
“Before the 1990s, opiates were largely reserved for cancer pain and for acute, severely painful injuries.”
Fickenscher said the game changer was OxyContin, because the manufacturer said it could relieve virtually any type of pain without being addictive.
“It didn't take long before the public was demanding it because it did have high potential for addiction and abuse.”
Instead of doctors checking just four basic vital signs -- pulse, respiration, body temp and blood pressure -- they now added a fifth: Pain level.
“You had to ask them, ‘What’s your level of pain, zero to 10?’"
Patients began to expect a pain-free life, and would even sue their doctors when they didn't prescribe enough painkillers. So, doctors began to write more prescriptions. That created more potential addicts who could find their way to heroin -- something Chris and Bonnie say they've never done.
But the DEA says four out of five new heroin users start with prescription painkillers. For that to change, Fickenscher says doctors and patients need to adjust their expectations.
“This concept that there is life without pain and suffering -- it just doesn't exist. That's a fantasy world.”
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