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Sunday, December 9 , 2018, 12:57 pm | Fair 66º

Your Health
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Santa Barbara County’s Hidden Heroin Addiction Revealed in Emergency Room Carnage

Cottage Hospital doctor describes drama on the front lines, and the woeful similarities of users’ stories and outcomes

Dr. Chris Flynn, an emergency room physician at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, and his colleagues treat waves of overdoses each month — with varying degrees of success. “You try to tell them ‘You almost died from this overdose’,” he says. “They come in covered in needle marks, they’ll look in poor health, skin color is bad ... They just look like zombies.” Click to view larger
Dr. Chris Flynn, an emergency room physician at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, and his colleagues treat waves of overdoses each month — with varying degrees of success. “You try to tell them ‘You almost died from this overdose’,” he says. “They come in covered in needle marks, they’ll look in poor health, skin color is bad ... They just look like zombies.” (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

[Noozhawk’s note: This article is one in a series on Santa Barbara County’s heroin epidemic. Click here for a complete series index.]

A typical 9-1-1 call reporting a heroin overdose often unfolds the same way, Dr. Chris Flynn says.

An adult will be found unconscious in a public bathroom or park, according to the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital emergency room physician; a recent patient of Flynn’s was found in the restroom of a Milpas Street fast-food restaurant.

                               |  Heroin Rising  |  Complete Series Index  |

As paramedics wheel the victim through the emergency room doors, the individual’s heart rate is “almost zero,” Flynn says. Medics will often administer Narcan, a drug that acts like a splash of cold water, blocking opiate receptors in the victim’s brain, helping them to wake up.

The patients are usually agitated when they wake up — withdrawal begins to kick in — and Flynn will try to relay the gravity of what just happened to their bodies.

“You try to tell them ‘You almost died from this overdose’,” Flynn told Noozhawk.

“They come in covered in needle marks, they’ll look in poor health, skin color is bad ... They just look like zombies.”

Flynn and his team of ER doctors and nurses will consistently see heroin overdoses each month. Then, a new wave of patients will wash over the ER, when a new batch of drugs comes to town, like black tar heroin.

Heroin, which blocks pain receptors in the brain and acts like naturally occurring chemical mood-boosting endorphins, requires the user to use more and more of the drug to achieve a similar effect in the brain.

The drug depresses the nervous system, which can calm users if they take a little, but put them to sleep if they take too much, with their heart and respiratory system essentially forgetting to breathe.

The drug can be mixed with anything, including prescription opiate Fentanyl, which can make the heroin many times more powerful and cause the user to accidentally overdose.

In the past, the hospital typically would see 30 to 40 heroin cases a year.

Over the last year, however, Flynn has seen about double that number of cases with heroin overdose symptoms.

People who have become addicted to opiates when they are prescribed medicines for pain management can turn to heroin, often to devastating consequence.

“We’ve been on the front lines,” Flynn said.

“We’ve seen the carnage of people being placed on high-dose narcotics for chronic pain. You develop tolerance so quickly.”

Opiate dependence crosses all age groups, from people who live on the streets to professionals who walk by them on the way to work.

“There are regular people who are functioning in society and you would never know,” he said.

That’s the story of Al, a recovering heroin addict, who spoke with Noozhawk on the condition of anonymity.

He’s been clean for eight months, and is holding down a job while living in a local residential treatment program.

Al became addicted in his early teens to Fentanyl, a powerful opiate used for pain relief, often after surgeries.

Ironically, his father works as an addiction doctor and his mother is a social worker, and yet “nobody knew about it” even though Al says he was using massive amounts of the drug “religiously.”

When his parents did find out, “they were besides themselves,” Al recalls, and he cycled in and out of rehab programs before moving to Santa Barbara to go to school and start afresh.

He moved to Isla Vista, where heroin was readily available, and a $60,000 inheritance from a family member enabled him to increase his daily fix to $1,000 a day from the $20 he had been spending.

Within six months the money was gone, and he could no longer conceal his habits from his family.

“They cut me off and said ‘Call us when you’re serious’,” Al said.

After moving to the Oxnard area to be closer to the heroin supply arriving from Mexico, Al ended up homeless and, eventually, in jail.

Calling his parents from custody, he heard relief on the other end of the telephone.

“My dad said ‘We’re relieved, this is a blessing,’” he recalled.

After being released from jail, Al talks to his family every day, and says he’s slowly trying to rebuild the trust that was destroyed from trying to hide his addiction.

Back in the emergency room, Flynn sees people when it’s impossible to cover up their drug use, suffering from painful infections at their injection points, chronic hepatitis or even inflammation of their heart walls.

“In California, people are so careful with what they put in their bodies ... but when they get to be an addict they suspend all judgment,” he remarked.

“Addiction is so powerful.”

                               |  Heroin Rising  |  Complete Series Index  |

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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