Sunday, February 25, 2001

The faces of OxyContin

Wonderful, awful drug returns life to some, robs it from others

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAZARD, Ky. - In this rural Appalachian community is the story of an addict, a patient and a preacher.

        All play different roles, but are deeply connected, part of an effort to beat an epidemic that involves the power and pull of the painkiller OxyContin.

        The patient says it saves. The addict says it destroys. And the preacher says it's a fight with the devil himself.

        As federal and state authorities try to crack down on the illicit use of the drug, members of this small town of 5,400 about four hours southeast of Cincinnati say they're just trying to pull through.

The addict

[photo] OxyContin addict Donna Marie Couch, 21, of Hazard, Ky., is serving a six-month sentence for burglary. “I was just high,” she says. “I didn't know what I was doing.”
(Glenn Hartong photos)
| ZOOM |
        From a picnic-style table in a Perry County jail, Donna Marie Couch tells the story of her Oxy addiction. The 21-year-old has been doing drugs since she was 12.

        “The first time,” she says, “I snorted it at my house. When I done it, it relaxed me. It made me nod out. I liked them a lot.”

        That was three years ago. She used the drug nearly every day until she was arrested for breaking into a house.

        Today, she's been behind bars for five months, part of a six-month sentence for the crime.

        “I was just high,” she says. “I didn't know what I was doing.”

        Before her incarceration, Ms. Couch did everything she could to get the drug. Her entire paycheck from a part-time job at Captain D's went to buy Oxy. She even did the drug alone so she wouldn't have to share.

        “I didn't care at the time,” she says. “That's all I wanted. You really don't know that you're in that bad of shape.”

        When police busted her, they brought her in with a 300-milligram-a-day habit, enough to treat some chronic pain sufferers for five days. She weighed only 96 pounds. Her addiction had fractured her relationship with her mother and father. Her health deteriorated.

        She vows that when she gets out next month she'll kick the habit, maybe even go to school in Alabama.

        “It was crazy the things I was doing,” she says. “(But) if you don't start, you don't have to stop.”

The patient
        For Bobbie Walker, the prescribed pain medication is a life-saver. It helps the 52-year-old Hazard woman do simple housework, such as vacuum the floors and wash the dishes.

        She has been on OxyContin for a year and a half, taking 20 milligrams three times a day. It helps ease the pain from injuries she sustained — several slipped disks, a herniated disk and pinched nerves.

        She slept only a few hours a night, and her right shoulder was constantly hunched up toward her neck because of the pain. Her right eye never ceased to water. She was on Lorcet, but it made her sick to her stomach.

        “Now, I have no pain until it (Oxy) starts to wear off,” she says. “OxyContin works for eight to 10 hours. I can do things. I can get up and do my everyday housework and just go.

        “I just feel normal, totally normal.”

        After federal agents arrested more than 200 Oxy pushers and users Feb. 6 in the largest drug raid in Kentucky's history, rumors spread through town about possible decreased legal access to the drug. And Ms. Walker started to worry.

        “ "I'm going to be in a lot of pain,' is what I thought,” she says.

The preacher
[photo] The Rev. Ronnie “Butch” Pennington of Hazard's Petrey Memorial Baptist Church likens the struggle against OxyContin addiction to a fight with the devil.
| ZOOM |
        Pain is what the Rev. Ronnie “Butch” Pennington of Petrey Memorial Baptist Church in Hazard addresses every day. It has been four months since 400 people attended a community meeting at his church to talk about how OxyContin has destroyed families' lives.

        “Kids were becoming belligerent, rebellious, stealing, lying and manipulating to support their habits,” he says. “Families filed bankruptcy. Parents had their life's savings stolen by their children.

        “It's getting adults and children. People had a lot of hurt and pain without a lot of answers.”

        The pages of the Hazard newspaper are filled with dozens of stories detailing the raid that locals call “Oxyfest 2001.” It took nearly a full page to list the names of those indicted and the federal charges against them.

        So concerned was the group that it decided to create an organization called People Against Drugs. Since the October meeting at the church, the group has formed committees that will help youth and teachers recognize drug abuse. Support groups help families, and group members plan a vigil walk down the streets of Hazard.

        Others are monitoring drug cases in the courts.

        The Rev. Mr. Pennington says the ultimate plan eventually is to provide a faith-based treatment center.

        “We are not just a watchdog group,” he says. “Our attempt is to help our people.”

        And like any Baptist preacher, the Rev. Mr. Pennington hopes to turn a great many to God.

        “The answer is not the drugs,” he says. “It's not the abuse. They need to get themselves in a relationship with God, first of all.”

        To the preacher, the battle is about more than just addiction.

        “God is in this thing,” he says. “The devil is, too. The devil is fighting, but we're not going to lay down, either. We might as well lock in for the long haul.

        “It's not going to go away overnight.”


A Cincinnati Enquirer Special Report: The OxyContin Pipeline
- The faces of OxyContin
Altered Oxy in the works
DNA test backlog may ease
The concealed-carry debate
BRONSON: Desert storm
CROWLEY: State officials tangled in the politics of Capitol
PULFER: Goodbye, Bill
Forgiving daughter's killer was healing
Police looking for man seen near site of teen-ager's slaying
Lights offered to Talawanda
Schools may redraw districts
Spiral Festival returns to track
Store offers park options
Tax-free online sales could hurt state
W. Chester hopes for state money
Wilkinson seeks court extension
Kentucky News Briefs
Tristate A.M. Report