Official: Overdoses in SC county preventable killer
A total of 60 fatal overdoses occurred in 2014 and 2015; the coroner said more people die from drug overdoses than from car crashes
By Mike Ellis
The Anderson Indpendent Mail
ANDERSON, S.C. — Pam Glick recently recalled a phone conversation with her sister Jennifer Slaton.
"I told her if you don't stop taking pills something bad would happen," Glick said. "She said, 'Don't worry about me. I'm fine.' That's what she was always saying: 'Don't worry about me. I'm fine.'"
At 5 a.m. the next morning, Sept. 7, 2011, Glick was wakened by a knock on her door.
Jennifer was dead, her daughter informed her.
Slaton had taken pain medication, cough syrup and Xanax. The coroner called it poly-drug toxicity.
Slaton got some of her pain pills, not for the first time, from a Greenville doctor's office, which has since been shut down. She got more pain pills the day she died from her drug dealer.
A police officer visited Slaton's at about midnight the day she died. One of Slaton's relatives called police to express her concern.
The officer found nothing wrong at midnight. Slaton was lucid at the time.
"She was good at hiding things," Glick said.
Paraphernalia, including the needles Jennifer used to inject the crushed-up pain pills, were kept well concealed.
Within two hours after the officer left, Slaton had taken enough drugs that her breathing slowed, then stopped.
She died in her bed.
A black bag with Lortab, Xanax and Prozac bottles was found on her night stand.
Lortab is an opiate, a pain killer like OxyContin and Roxicodone. The prescription drugs are popular among addicts and common among overdose victims.
Glick said her sister had also taken OxyContin.
Opiates attach themselves to receptors in the brain, dramatically slowing down the normal respiratory signals so the body doesn't get enough oxygen.
Overdoses can kill in other ways.
Stimulants, like amphetamines, can kill through heart attacks or strokes. Other drugs can be deadly by damaging filtering organs like the liver and kidneys.
But most of the overdose deaths in Anderson County happen with a combination of opiates and other drugs slowing down respiration, said Anderson County Coroner Greg Shore.
Preventable, but hushed up
Overdoses are whispered about and the cause of death is rarely mentioned in an obituary.
"I've never told my sister's story before," Glick, of Anderson, said. "For a long time I told people she was sick and died of natural causes. If talking about it can help one person, that's worth it."
There have been at least six fatal overdoses in Anderson County this year, including Ted Arrowood.
The 53-year-old was charged with driving drunk in a March 2015 crash that severely injured a former Pendleton High School basketball player.
He died of an overdose in his parents home on March 4, likely from too many prescription pills, Shore said.
Toxicology tests will confirm the cause.
Sixty fatal overdoses took place in Anderson County in 2014 and 2015.
That's an average of one death every 12 days.
More people in the county die of overdoses than traffic accidents.
"It's the leading cause of preventable death," Shore said.
It's something that gets swept under the rug.
Overdoses affect so many people, families and friends. That is important to acknowledge, said Stacey Carroll, executive director of Shalom House Ministries, a rehabilitation center for addicted women in Anderson County.
"A huge percentage of our ladies had overdosed. Ninety percent of those have told us they were trying to commit suicide," she said. "Whether it was a real attempt or a gesture, they have almost all overdosed. There's a lot of unhealthy relationships, broken hearts and mental health issues with addicts.
"Many of them take these drugs because they can't get mental health treatment, or they can't get to see a mental health professional in less than three weeks. That's a long time for someone who is looking at detoxing."
Carroll said she agrees with Shore, who said drugs are the county's No. 1 problem.
"We would only need a handful of jail cells if it wasn't for drugs and alcohol," Carroll said. "And mental health is a way to fix that, because a lot of the people who end up in jail took drugs and alcohol (as a means of) self-medicating."
There's no demographic for overdoses, said Mark Henderson, a Medshore Ambulance Service supervisor.
Overdoses don't care if someone is poor or rich, he said.
There's no expected age for an OD.
The average, locally over the last two years, is 47.
No teens have overdosed in the county in the last two years, but there are those in their 20s and 70s who died of overdoses.
It's almost exactly split between men and women.
Many overdose victims were habitual drug abusers. Others were new to drugs, or had never bought from a drug dealer, just prescriptions from a pharmacy.
The one demographic that stands out is race.
Fifty-nine of the 60 fatal overdoses in 2014 and 2015 were white men or white women.
"It's striking," Shore said.
Most overdoses, maybe about 90 percent, are not fatal, he said.
There aren't really good numbers for overdoses.
Many aren't reported.
Dispatchers for 911 in the county received 420 calls for overdoses from February 2015 to February 2016.
AnMed Health Medical Center treated 230 overdoses in 2015. Forty percent were determined to have been intentional and 15 percent were accidental. Medical staff weren't able to determine if the rest, more than 100 overdoses, were on purpose or not.
The deaths, and near-deaths, are mostly due to prescription drug abuse.
Most of the deaths, like Slaton, are categorized as poly-drug toxicity, meaning there were several drugs that interacted and overwhelmed the body.
There's another risk over the horizon. Heroin.
The drug is making a big comeback in northern states.
Brandie moved to Anderson last summer with her husband, a military veteran, who has overdosed three times.
She asked that her last name not be used.
"We're from Monmouth County, New Jersey. Heroin central," Brandie said. "The statistics are scary."
Anderson County Sheriff John Skipper said heroin is beginning to make a comeback in the area.
Hospitals and EMS workers have not seen very many heroin overdoses, but they're preparing.
Brandie said she and her husband were close with four people back in New Jersey who fatally overdosed on heroin.
Brandie says she sees people high on heroin or opiates when she's out shopping in Anderson.
Her husband is clean now and has been for more than a year.
He overdosed twice while on active duty.
"One time, a friend saved his tail, saved his career and his family," Brandie said. "He told a commanding officer that my husband had taken too many pills at different times, different kinds. Another time he was out with friends and he overdosed. I didn't find out for many weeks."
The last overdose, the scariest, happened at his mother's home in 2014.
Her husband collapsed and was given a shot of Narcan, the brand name for anti-overdose drug naloxone, which bumps the opiates from the body's receptors, allowing the signals for breathing to go through again.
The anti-overdose drug has been available at pharmacies in the state since the law changed last summer. Paramedics from Medshore have used Narcan 19 times this year.
Brandie said the third overdose was the last straw.
"I thought for sure our marriage was over. We were done," she said. "I'd be a single mother. Our kids started knowing what was going on, I stopped covering for it. I would tell them, 'Daddy used drugs, now daddy's going to the hospital.' He was finally taking responsibility."
She cut off contact with her husband, but after a brief rehab stint, he began to recover.
"Slowly he started living the right way, as a man, as a father, as a Christian," Brandie said.
Through a combination of humiliation and the scare of having to be revived, Brandie's husband got clean.
She said it was important to have the distance.
They began coming back together a bit at a time, eventually reuniting.
"If you truly love someone, you have to let them help themselves sometimes," Brandie said. "You can only help someone so much."
Carroll called it a tough line to walk.
"We need more psychiatrists. We need to get diagnoses quicker and get people on the right medicines," Carroll said. "It's not simple. Addiction is a disease, it's not a moral issue."
Brandie said she can't excuse or accept drug abuse, but addicts should always be treated with love and concern.
"If I saw someone high, I would make it my it my business to see what I could do for them," Brandie said. "Tell them it seems you need some assistance today. Walk them to their car. Get into their life and find out what they need. Don't just look at them and walk away. A person addicted is a person in need, so see if you can, help them. ... We're so quick to judge, but not to help."
Copyright 2016 The Anderson Independent Mail
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