Summit County groups mobilize in growing fight against opioid addiction
Carlos Santos knows firsthand just how quickly the cloud of opiate addiction can take hold.
The 2002 Summit High School graduate was a national-level rugby player when he was seriously injured playing quarterback in the Tigers’ homecoming football game his junior season. After being hit by two defenders, Santos landed awkwardly on his head and suffered a freak injury that broke his neck and severely damaged his spinal cord.
Immediately unable to feel his limbs, he was rendered a quadriplegic.
Through surgery, as well as intensive physical therapy and rehabilitation at Craig Hospital on the Front Range, Santos miraculously made strides toward recovery. He was one of the lucky ones, and a little more than four months later he returned to school and eventually completed his diploma on time with the rest of his class.
What he didn’t know then was that the habit-forming pills he’d been prescribed to manage the pain would wind up leading him down an almost decade-long path in the persistent fight for his life. Even into college at Adams State University in Alamosa, the ability to score more meds whenever he wanted became effortless.
“I realized early on that I could use my condition as an excuse and no one would deny me,” said Santos. “I could get away with it. By the time I was 22 or 23, once I would start to get sick or these people were saying withdrawal, I would be seeking it out or it would be on my mind — it would just be consuming my thoughts.”
With his health continuing to improve, obtaining oxycodone from care providers ultimately dried up. Only a year or two later he estimates he was spending at least half of his paycheck buying pills off street dealers, in addition to coming up with schemes for how to convince doctors to approve his next dose.
“I even tried at one point to forge a prescription and I was just thankful the pharmacist — whether he was aware or he was just being kind, for whatever reason — he just denied me,” recalled the now 33-year-old Copper Mountain resident. “I’m just grateful that it didn’t become something more serious.”
‘Playing cat and mouse’
Santos’ story is not uncommon. And the often unforgiving cycle is one that is occurring with rising frequency here in Summit — Colorado’s 11th highest-ranked county for opiate overdose deaths.
The National Institutes of Health reports that of those people entering treatment for opioid abuse in the 1960s, more than 80 percent started their addiction with heroin. In the 2000s, almost the exact opposite was true, with 75 percent stating their first experience with the drug started with a prescription.
Combine that with 2015 data confirming roughly 80 percent of the world’s opioid supply is consumed in the United States and 52,000-plus overdose deaths across the nation — more than 60 percent of them associated with opioids and about half of those from prescriptions — and it makes for an increasingly deadly drug cocktail.
“It’s an alarming number,” said Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, noting that with a going rate of $50 a pill on the street, people routinely end up turning to heroin. “And for $50 of heroin, they can get high a lot more times. And bingo, they take one shot and it’s over — they realize how easy that is, and how easy it is to get.”
To try and head off the growing problem in the county, the sheriff’s office and department of public health partnered on ramping up the prescription drug collection program. An anonymous disposal box is accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at the sheriff’s office, in addition to one at Dillon Town Hall and another at Prescription Alternatives Pharmacy in Frisco during respective business hours. The sheriff’s office also maintains a separate drop-off box for safe disposal of needles.
As of this past spring, all members of local law enforcement have now joined paramedics and the fire departments in also carrying an anti-opioid nasal spray called Narcan with them for life-saving overdose situations. Officials warn, however, that it’s not a solution in the ongoing battle against opioids, and that expanded treatment options are really what’s needed most.
“Right now you have prevention, you have abuse and you have Narcan,” said FitzSimons. “But it’s sort of like playing cat and mouse, because Narcan is not the catcher’s mitt — it is not treatment — and it’s not going to get people to stop using dope.”
On the Offensive
Bucking the local trend, internal Summit School District surveys show opioid and prescription drug use among students has been on the decline the past few years. The public school system remains on the offensive with prevention programming, and recently received a three-year Colorado Department of Education grant to fund a new social worker position, as well as an evidence-based, peer-driven drug consumption reduction program known as Lead & Seed.
Also for this academic year, the district collaborated with the sheriff’s office in funding a second school resource officer so there’s now one dedicated at the middle and high school instead of one position splitting the two. The Lead & Seed model is just getting underway and includes six adults from the community to act as support, with Santos functioning as one of them.
Today working at the Dillon office of the Northwest Colorado Center for Independence for two years as its Summit County coordinator, Santos is thankful he never ended up moving on to heroin. Bouts with alcohol abuse as a stand-in for prescription meds and a drunken driving accident in the summer of 2009 acted as a wake-up call and eventually helped him escape addiction’s firm grip on his existence. He said he’s been clean since that time, and focused on helping others.
“It was seven years where basically my addiction was overcoming everything else in my life,” said Santos, acknowledging every day remains a struggle. “It was just fortunate that I gave it the due process and was serious about my treatment.
“A lot of people don’t realize that if they used that to their benefit that it would help them,” he added. “If they approach it that this is really something that could help me turn my life around — especially if they’re in a spiral like I was — then it will definitely change their life, and it did for me.”
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