Beyond the overdose: addiction’s deadly side effects

Dr. Darrin Privett speaks about the effects of drugs he sees in the emergency room at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital before hundreds of attendees at the city's third "Heroin Kills" symposium held at the Santa Clartia Sports Complex in 2013. Photo by Dan Watson.

Less than 10 days before Christmas, another Santa Clarita Valley family lost a son to the heroin epidemic.

It wasn’t an overdose, but a growing concern that’s associated with the drug epidemic. The 29-year-old died of endocarditis, which, like the Hepatitis B he’d also contracted, was brought on by intravenous drug use.

He’d been arrested several times, and like many who are addicted to drugs in the Santa Clarita Valley, he was known to the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station’s Juvenile Intervention Team, or J-Team, which had tried repeatedly to get him into a rehab program.

“In June, I had contacted the guy and he was very cordial, we had a very cordial conversation and I offered him our help in finding a drug counseling program that would fit his financial situation,” said Sgt. Bob Wachsmuth, a drug addiction specialist and member of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station’s Juvenile-Intervention Team, or J-Team. “And he said he would get back to me.”

Relapses and repeated use bring with them a myriad of concerns and medical problems beyond the deadly overdose.

“Using drugs themselves, obviously are pretty dangerous,” said Dr. Darrin Privett, an emergency room doctor for Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, “but on top of that there’s a host of complication that can make that even more dangerous.”

The most common things that emergency room doctors see are the painful infections that addicts can get from intravenous drug use, he said.

“Most commonly they get local abscesses where they inject in the skin,” he said. “The veins themselves get inflamed and scarred.. and then there are other associated diseases, such as Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and HIV.”

Studies have shown that 75 percent to 90 percent of people who inject drugs have Hepatitis C, he pointed out.

“And on top of that you have bacterial infections that can cause a lot of complications,” he said, explaining just how dangerous and bad for the body IV drug use can be. “Because you inject the bacteria in to the blood, and the blood can take it to call kinds of places, such as the heart.”

While earlier this year, Los Angeles County made the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station the first to have every deputy equipped with the life-saving, overdose-preventing drug Narcan, that’s only a very immediate, short-term solution to the overdose problem.

And if Henry Mayo’s emergency room is any indication — hospital officials report that they see anywhere from 15-20 overdoses every month brought in by ambulance — the problem is growing despite all efforts to the contrary.

“It waxes and wanes,” Privett said. “It’s gone up and down and a few years ago with the ‘Heroin Kills’ campaign, we thought we had control, but we’ve seen it spike in the last year and a half, unfortunately.”

The key is community awareness, community education and maintaining an active involvement, he said, while praising the work of the Sheriff’s Department and local resources such as the J-Team. The hospital has also teamed up with the J-Team to meet with local high schools and present information to students.

“We have social workers in the emergency department who are on the spot in real time trying to provide resources for them, for drug rehab, and detox,” he added.

However, as Wachsmuth has also seen first-hand, the lasting desire to change has to come from the person battling the addiction.

One Santa Clarita Valley deputy successfully administered a life-saving dose of Narcan after they were handed out this past spring, and the J-Team reached out to the man while he was still at the hospital. The grateful patient vowed he’d get help.

Yet less than a month later, he was back on the streets using, Wachsmuth said.

In the arena of battling addiction, it’s an unfortunate but all too common occurrence.

“We’re losing people  between the bridge from the Emergency Room to the outpatient (stage),” Privett said. “That’s the discussion, is trying to figure out what we can do to try to bridge that gap, or some type of follow up.”

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