Law enforcement, recovering addict preach dangers of drugs at Monessen High
Westmoreland County Coroner Ken Bacha clenched a toe tag in his right hand and a black body bag in his left.
“Life and drugs are like a GPS. Go down the right road and you're going to a positive destination you want,” Bacha said.
“You veer off on the wrong road and don't make a U-turn … I'm the one that's at the end of the wrong road. The first thing you get is a toe tag. The next thing you get is an $11 body bag… one size fits all.”
Bacha headlined a panel of speakers Wednesday evening in the Monessen High School auditorium. The goal was to warn parents and students about prescription drug abuse and to urge parents to educate themselves and keep open lines of communication with their children.
The program, sponsored by Bentleyville-based doctors Kamlesh B. Gosai and Anant J. Gandhi, included speakers from the law enforcement, educational and medical communities, including Bacha, Monessen police Chief Mark Gibson and Monessen High School Principal Brian Sutherland.
Many declared prescription drug abuse to be an epidemic in the county and much of western Pennsylvania, and that the prescription drug abusers of today are the heroin addicts of tomorrow.
Bacha rolled out statistics — including the current number of Westmoreland County overdoses in 2013 — which is on pace for an all-time high of 132 deaths.
“The first 10 years I've been in office, from 2002 to 2011, we averaged 47 overdose deaths a year,” Bacha said.
“In 2012, we hit 78, and so far this year, two months in, we've already hit 22.”
One thing that has changed, Bacha said, is the skyrocketing shift in prescription medication overdoses.
“I give you these numbers, which sound so impersonal, but this becomes very personal,” Bacha said.
“A lot of people ask me the worst part of my job. ... The worst part of our job is at 2 o'clock in the morning, having to go up and knock on somebody's door and watch mom and dad walk out on the porch.
“You don't even have to open your mouth, and they start bawling without you uttering one single word.”
Westmoreland narcotics Detective Tony Marcocci, who's worked drug cases for nearly three decades, held aloft packets of heroin for the nearly 200 in attendance to see.
He said there is “no doubt” in making a direct link between prescription pills and heroin.
The heroin in the county, he said, often comes in powder form and is sold individually in small plastic bags called “stamp bags.”
“The kids know what's going on out on the streets. The people that don't are the parents,” Marcocci said. “I like to educate the parents on what to look for and what they can do. I couldn't tell you the parents who told me they were pulling these packets out of their child's pockets when they were doing laundry, and they thought they were gum wrappers.”
With such pills as oxycodone averaging $30 apiece, abusers naturally turn to a cheaper alternative in heroin, Marcocci said. With both being narcotics, users build up a tolerance and need increasing amounts, and they inevitably turn to heroin, which he said runs $7 to $10 per stamp bag.
To illustrate the potency of a typical stamp bag of heroin, Marcocci told the audience to dump a single packet of sugar on a table and split the granules into 100 piles of equal parts.
“Each one of these bags contains one to three of those parts,” he said. “You're talking miniscule samples, and people are dying from them.
“So how potent is it? I'm not a doctor, but I know what I see on the streets of our county.”
Marcocci added that he constantly works with heroin addicts who are “good kids that come from good families.”
Recovering addict “Ashley” — who was not otherwise identified — stated she was one of those kids, but from not such a good home. She took her first oxycodone pill at age 13 and ended up injecting heroin with her mother four years later.
Ashley said she always made herself the victim and found that people were always willing to enable her behavior — until her father finally kicked her out of the house and forbade her to return.
“I was always about manipulation and, ‘Don't you know what the world did to me?' but I can't play that role anymore, because I know better,” she said.
“It started with the bad decisions I started making a long time ago, and it led to heroin addiction.”
Carmen Capozzi of Irwin presented emotion-fueled testimony.
His son, Sage, died after a third overdose nearly a year ago. Sage was a golfer and a wrestler, but his father said he felt “powerless” when his son told him one day he had overdosed the night before.
“Drugs don't discriminate, people do,” he said. “I used to be a parent who dismissed these kids as junkies.”
His father said Sage — reaching for a 90th straight day of being clean — died March 5 of a suspected cocaine overdose.
A website, www.sagesarmy.com, encourages parents to share their stories and speak out against drug abuse.
“I urge you to speak up and talk to your kids,” Capozzi said. “The dealers want us to stay silent. We hide, they stay in business.”
Dr. Brenda Walther, Monongahela Valley Hospital Emergency Department director, said she and her staff deal with addiction daily.
“There's not a shift that goes by we don't treat people for either drug-related complications or drug-seeking behavior,” Walther said.
She showed slides of skin infections caused by dirty syringes and resulting cases of hepatitis and HIV.
“What we'll see commonly is overdoses, and a lot of the time they're unintentional, because they're taking more and more,” Walther said. “And some of the ones we save are permanently damaged. We have an 18 year old who ended up a vegetable for the rest of his life.”
Walther has run into addicts and sellers who hit one emergency room after another to acquire prescription narcotics.
She cited a 35-year-old West Virginia man who “slipped through the cracks” and visited the Monongahela Valley Hospital ER several dozen times over the course of a year before he was caught.
Walther said emergency rooms like hers have adopted policies to weed out these people and limit acquisition of narcotics.
“We need to stop the root of the problem,” she said.
Yeshvant A. Navalgund, a pain management physician based in Greensburg, noted that 99 percent of the world's hydrocodone supply is consumed in the United States. Navalgund said prescription drug addiction is a symptom of a society that demands instant gratification.
“Opioids, otherwise known as the ‘oxys,' the ‘percs' and the ‘vikes' … is a disease that's infiltrating our families, our children and our friends,” he said.
“I'm a father of four children, and I dread the day that I have to have these discussions with them. But it's such an important topic; you have to bring it up at home. These are viewed as OK by children, because these prescriptions were written by a doctor. But they are far more dangerous than other drugs.”
Sutherland noted a study of one county in southern Ohio, where a large percentage young person was addicted to prescription pills.
“I don't think any of us want that to happen here in Monessen,” Sutherland said. “And by your attention and your presence here, I can sense and see a commitment to address an amazingly complex problem.
“… There are parents who need to monitor pills that come into the home and to understand the addictive properties of what they are bringing into the home.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.