By Kelli Stopczynski (firstname.lastname@example.org)
4:31 PM EDT, October 27, 2011
It's a problem gripping some local communities and taking young lives. Local police, ER doctors and coroners say heroin is back with a vengeance.
A powerful drug
Photos and memories are all Janet Gardner has of her son Ryan.
"He was always smiling," she said.
The last time she saw that infectious smile was Thursday, August 24 when she picked her son up from LaPorte County's work release center to fill a prescription and eat lunch. A few hours after she took him back to work release, Ryan and another inmate escaped.
Gardner text messaged back and forth with her son that evening.
"The last text I received from him was around 11 and it just said, 'I love you Mom.'"
The next day, 24-year-old Ryan Smith was found dead at a friend's apartment. His cause of death? A heroin overdose.
Ryan started taking heroin when he was 21. His addiction was no secret to his mom and stepdad.
"This is a powerful drug," Janet Gardner said. "It was horrible for him. He knew he had a problem and he really hated it. That's why he tried over and over again to get help. He stole from us. He took stuff to pawn it to get money for this drug."
Slowly, it tore their family apart.
"She even hid from me that she bailed him out and spent $600 bucks to get him out of jail," said Janet's husband, Don Gardner. "The lies went all the way through him to her. She would do anything to take care of him."
"He was just unable to leave it alone, as many young people are," said LaPorte County Coroner John Sullivan. "It's a very, very big problem in LaPorte. It's our biggest problem."
An alarming trend
Sullivan said he's seeing an alarming trend in the number of people dying from heroin.
"We are finding a lot of bodies, they're passed away with the syringe either still in the vein or it's right underneath the body. That's how quick the heroin is taking them," he said.
Heroin deaths are tough for coroners and medical examiners to nail down because many people who overdose on it often have a mix of other drugs in their system. WSBT attempted to obtain heroin death-related statistics from other counties in northern Indiana and southwest Michigan, but those counties don't have an easy way to go back in their files to count the number of people who died from heroin overdoses.
Right now the biggest heroin problem in our area seems to be in LaPorte and St. Joseph counties and those further west, toward Chicago. Other coroners in more rural counties to the east and the south told WSBT prescription drugs – especially methadone – appear to be causing the most deaths there.
Nonetheless, LaPorte County does keep track of heroin-related deaths. In 2000, two deaths were blamed on heroin overdoses. In 2010, that number jumped to 13.
Even though neighboring St. Joseph County is one of the counties that does not have an easy way to go back and count deaths specifically related to heroin, the problem appears to be just as bad there.
"Obviously [we’re seeing] a huge increase," said South Bend Police Capt. Scott Ruszkowski. "It's readily available and a lot cheaper than it used to be."
Heroin is often cheaper than marijuana, selling for as little as $5 a hit, Ruszkowski said.
"A lot of people don't realize the trickle down effects. That's why we start having increases in robberies, in burglaries, shoplifting, auto thefts and probably the most significant is people stealing from their own families to get the money to buy this drug," he added.
St. Joseph Regional Medical Center ER physician Tom Sweeney told WSBT they're also seeing more patients overdose. Many of them who are found and treated quickly after ingesting heroin don't die because they get medical attention quickly.
"I had a family from Granger a couple weeks ago with a kid and they refused to, they said 'We want to let him hit bottom like an alcoholic.' There's no bottom [with heroin]. They just always want it," Sweeney said. "The slang is called 'chasin' Jason.' You're always trying to get that high you had the first time and you never achieve it. Your first dose of heroin is your best."
And it's a tough habit to break, a struggle Don and Janet Gardner know first-hand.
"We went to a few different places to get help but without insurance, there's no help for any of these kids," Janet said.
The Gardners tried bringing their son to treatment facilities in South Bend a few times, but since he was over 18, they couldn't force him to stay if he wasn't committed to going through treatment. And treating heroin addiction can be very expensive.
According to information gathered from local treatment facilities, some offer non-medicated therapy on sliding scales - based on income. A 3 to 5-day detox session costs up to $1,100. A 12-week therapy session (non-medicated) costs anywhere from $300 to $1,500.
Medication-assisted therapy starts at $150 a week and can continue for months. But few physicians in our community can give that treatment because they have to undergo extensive training and can only treat a certain number of patients at one time.
The posh rehab centers where celebrities go to overcome addictions cost $30,000 and up.
And treatment doesn't always work.
"The withdrawal from heroin is extremely difficult, extremely uncomfortable," said John Horsley, addiction services manager at Oaklawn Treatment Center in South Bend. "The withdrawal from heroin is extremely difficult, extremely uncomfortable. So when somebody comes in for heroin treatment, they fear it. It feels like death. Once the withdrawal is over – the physical withdrawal – typically a person still has very intense cravings. Typically they haven't separated themselves from that culture, friends that are using. So there's a lot of triggers bringing those cravings on. There's a lot of availability, a lot of pulling them back in."
But there is hope for people battling heroin addiction.
"We could march person after person in this room that has overcome heroin addiction," Horsley added. "It's possible to recover. There is help out there and people can get past it if they choose to do it."
Other area treatment centers said they successfully treat addicts who then stay clean for years.
Ryan Smith's parents said he would be clean months at a time…before relapsing.
"There's not as many drugs in the jail as there are on the streets. That's why when he knew he had a problem and he would start using and he couldn't get any help, he would do something stupid just to get thrown in jail," said Janet Gardner.
"Everybody always says: 'If the parents would have done this, if the parents would have done that.' But it's not the parents' fault," Don Gardner said. "There is no parent who can fight this."
And there doesn't seem to be a clear-cut solution to getting heroin off the streets, meaning it will continue taking loved ones too soon… haunting families like Ryan Smith's.
"Heroin is still in this house, heroin is still in her. The result of heroin is still consuming her and it's still...taking her from us," Don said, breaking down in tears.
Web extra: Help for addicts
If you or someone you know is suffering from a heroin addiction, there is at least one federally funded program in Indiana designed to help addicts. Access to Recovery is a grant program that provides vouchers to pay for chemical addiction treatment and recovery support services. The program is funded by the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.
Access to Recovery is available to people recently released from the criminal justice system, women who are pregnant or have dependent children and people recovering from methamphetamine addictions.
For more information about Access to Recovery and how to apply for the grant, contact Drug Free Community Council Recovery Consultant Tanita Brown (574) 239-8565 x334 or online through the Family & Social Services Administration: http://www.in.gov/fssa/dmha/2701.htm
Other Indiana Drug Addiction Resources:
Statewide Detoxification and Residential Addiction Services
Indiana Prevention Resource Center – Grant/Funding News
Copyright © 2013, WSBT-TV