Tuesday, May 22 , 2018, 8:01 pm | Fair 63º

 
 
 
Your Health
A Noozhawk partnership with Cottage Health
Advice

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.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Supporter

Enter your email
Select your membership level
×

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

 

Special Reports

Heroin Rising
<p>Lizette Correa shares a moment with her 9-month-old daughter, Layla, outside their Goleta home. Correa is about to graduate from Project Recovery, a program of the Santa Barbara Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse, and is determined to overcome her heroin addiction — for herself and for her daughter. “I look at her and I think ‘I need to be here for her and I need to show her an example, I don’t want her to see me and learn about drugs’,” she says.</p>

In Struggle to Get Clean, and Stay That Way, Young Mother Battles Heroin Addiction

Santa Barbara County sounds alarm as opiate drug use escalates, spreads into mainstream population
Safety Net Series
<p>Charles Condelos, a retired banker, regularly goes to the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics for his primary care and to renew his prescription for back pain medication. He says Dr. Charles Fenzi, who was treating him that day at the Westside Clinic, and Dr. Susan Lawton are some of the best people he’s ever met.</p>

Safety Net: Patchwork of Clinics Struggles to Keep Santa Barbara County Healthy

Clinics that take all comers a lifeline for low-income patients, with new health-care law about to feed even more into overburdened system. First in a series
Prescription for Abuse
<p>American Medical Response emergency medical technicians arrive at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital with little time to spare for victims of prescription drug overdoses.</p>

Quiet Epidemic of Prescription Drug Abuse Taking a Toll on Santa Barbara County

Evidence of addiction shows an alarming escalation, Noozhawk finds in Prescription for Abuse special report
Mental Health
<p>Rich Detty and his late wife knew something was wrong with their son, Cliff, but were repeatedly stymied in their attempts to get him help from the mental health system. Cliff Detty, 46, died in April while in restraints at Santa Barbara County’s Psychiatric Health Facility.</p>

While Son Struggled with Mental Illness, Father Fought His Own Battle

Cliff Detty's death reveals scope, limitations of seemingly impenetrable mental health system. First in a series