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Sons and daughters, lost to a pill epidemic

They formed the group in the midst of sorrow.

After Renee buried a son.

After Joyce watched her daughter relapse.

After Janet rocked an addicted infant to sleep in a hospital ward.

Three women, all healthcare professionals, each bringing her own tragic perspective to South Florida’s pill-mill crisis, banded together last year to form an advocacy group to force the closing of rogue pain clinics and ban the highly addictive painkiller oxycodone. Most of all, they want an end to the overdoses and funerals.

It is a mission born from personal experiences in Broward County, the capital of the prescription black market and a popular destination for pill poppers and pushers. In practical terms, it has meant three friends joining forces to demand stronger laws from legislators, taking their cause to the streets by holding monthly rallies outside suspect pain clinics. They are the faces behind the e-mails, the letters, the hand-lettered picket signs, the organization they named STOPP NOW — Stop the Organized Pill Pushers.

And they are mothers, torn between the emptiness of loss and outrage toward a government they believe hasn’t done enough.

“Every day, we are losing our children,’’ says Renee Doyle, 57, a licensed practical nurse whose son died in an oxycodone-related car accident 15 months ago. “They are addicted to these pain pills and they are not your loved ones anymore. They are lost and you just don’t know if you will ever get them back.’’

Each day in Florida, seven people on average take a fatal dose of prescription drugs. Over the years, lax regulation has helped to create a landscape of storefront pain clinics operating in nondescript shopping plazas, dispensing millions of pills with little — or no — medical reason. In Broward alone, more than one million pills are dispensed every month, according to the Broward Sheriff’s Office. And most mornings, dozens of buyers line up outside the county’s 130 clinics. They leave in vehicles with tags from Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and other eastern states, with pills to use and resell. In the first half of 2010 alone, doctors in Florida doled out nine times more oxycodone than in the rest of the entire United States during the same time frame.

PAIN INTO ACTION

“It used to be crack and heroin, now it’s a war on pills,’’ says Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti, who has pushed for more regulation for seven years. “And Broward County is ground zero. There are more pain clinics here than Starbucks. How can that be?’’

He said groups like STOPP NOW and NOPE (Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education) have funneled personal pain into action.

“These are people who know the human toll of this problem because they have lost children,” he said. “They know better than anyone.’’

In February, Attorney General Pam Bondi introduced a series of proposals for the legislative season aimed at bolstering the state’s role in shutting down the pill mills.

But Gov. Rick Scott is vehemently opposed to the one tool — a database to track prescription sales — that law enforcement authorities say offers the best shot at curbing doctor-hopping and excessive prescriptions. He cites privacy issues as the reason he will repeal the measure, which was approved by the Legislature two years ago but was delayed by a dispute among possible contractors.

In 2009, 1,185 people overdosed on oxycodone in Florida, up almost 26 percent from 2008, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission. The drug was a factor in 763 more deaths that year. One of them was Blayne Lewis, the second youngest of Doyle’s four sons. Lewis, who struggled to conquer his craving for the high of prescription pills for seven years, was hit by a car on a December night when he wandered across State Road 7 in Davie in an oxycodone-fueled haze.

Doyle unknowingly drove right past the scene. She was returning from visiting a new grandson at Plantation General Hospital. She saw a body, covered with canvas.

“I remember thinking, ‘oh no, there’s an accident and I hope no one has been hurt.’ When I saw someone had been hit by a car, I had no idea it was my own son,’’ she says softly. “He had been in such a drugged-out stupor.’’

THE WAY HE WAS

Before he slipped into the oblivion of drugs, Lewis was a romantic. He kept a journal and loved Disney movies. He was an avid fisherman and dreamed of having a house full of children. He got his first blue pill in 2002 as treatment for a knee injury.

“It started as a way to help with his injury but once he couldn’t get it from the doctor, he started looking for the pain clinics,’’ Doyle says. “We had so many ups and downs where he would think he had beat it. Then he would have a relapse.’’

Lewis fed his habit by bouncing from pain clinic to pain clinic around Broward, buying — and eventually selling — large quantities of pills.

In November 2009, Lewis relapsed again. He spent four days in the hospital detoxing.

“When he was recovering, he told me about all the pill mills, how he could doctor shop to get anything he needed,” Doyle recalls. “We got him into a [recovery] program. I remember picking him up from the intensive care unit to take him there.’’

In the car, the song I Am Home by Christian rock band Switchfoot was playing. Doyle prayed Lewis had reached a turning point.

Two weeks later, he was dead. He was 27.

Lewis was buried at a Hollywood cemetery. Among those at the funeral: Janet Colbert. Doyle and Colbert were old friends, once living on the same street in a Dania Beach neighborhood. Their children grew up together.

Colbert, a neonatal nurse in Broward, was starting to see a wave of addicted babies coming into her unit, a chilling reminder of the 1990s, when she dealt with infants withdrawing from crack cocaine.

“In our unit, you would see babies every once in a while that were addicted. But then I was seeing it more and more. Right before Blayne overdosed, we had eight babies here at one time. We were asking ourselves, ‘what is going on?’ ’’ she says.

One baby who had been exposed to oxycodone in the uterus screamed and trembled, she said. He was so bad that he “couldn’t suck on his bottle. He couldn’t sleep.”

Then Doyle told her about Broward’s pill mills: “I knew we had the answer and I knew we had to do something.’’

LIVING IN FEAR

Colbert met Joy Saghy, 47, a respiratory therapist, at work.

Saghy walked in the room one day where Colbert was rocking an addicted newborn to sleep. Saghy began sharing her own story of living with a daughter who has been addicted to oxycodone for six years. Bree Saghy, a teenager at the time, would make two-hour trips from the family’s home in Sebastian to Broward pain clinics to pick up monthly stashes of oxycodone, Xanax and Soma, a muscle relaxant, before the family moved to Fort Lauderdale last January.

“It’s been constant lying, constant manipulation to feed the addiction. It robs them of their soul,’’ says Saghy. “I live in fear. Everyday I go home, open her door and pray to God she is still breathing.’’

Bree Saghy, now 23, swallowed her first one-fourth of a pill at a bar when she was 17, self-medication for a bad break-up. At the time, she was set on a career doing hair and nails.

But it was the beginning of a spiral that has included repeated stints in rehab, a one-year jail term for possession and a hepatitis C diagnosis from crushing and shooting up the medication. Two years ago, Bree also witnessed her mother frantically perform CPR on a close friend who was overdosing on prescription drugs in the Saghy home. He died hours later.

For Saghy, life is a never-ending, uncontrollable urge for more pills — to swallow whole or grind for snorting or shooting up. On her first visit to a pain clinic off Sample Road, Bree told the doctor she had fallen off a horse. She had no bruises, no X-rays, no MRI. She walked out the door with 240 oxycodone, 90 Xanax and 90 Suma pills.

“It gives you this feeling of euphoria,’’ she says. “Once you get that first high, you spend the rest of your time chasing that feeling and it never feels that good again, but that doesn’t stop you from chasing it.’’

Clean for just over a week, Bree Saghy is open about the destruction her 20-pill-a-day habit has caused.

“It ruined me. I put my family through pure hell. I have forged checks, I have pawned everything in my mother’s house including her engagement ring. I have stolen her bank cards, all to get high,’’ she says. “And yet, they have loved me unconditionally and tried over and over to save me.’’

By the spring of 2010, Doyle, Colbert and Saghy were sitting over sandwiches at Lester’s Diner in Fort Lauderdale plotting their next move. Each brought a particular experience, a particular pain to the lunch.

“We sat at the table talking about how we needed to do something immediately because people were dying and babies were coming into the world hooked on oxycodone,’’ Colbert says. “We said we would get a group going and write letters and then we said let’s start holding rallies at these pain clinics to raise awareness. It was also a good form of therapy.’’

The women founded STOPP NOW, with the goal of banning oxycodone – except when treating late stages of cancer – and supporting the database.

They held their first rally in August at a pain clinic on Griffin Road. It was just the three of them and a handful of family members and close friends, marching in front of storefronts and strip malls where pain clinics dole out their wares, hoisting signs that read “In Memory of Blayne” and “Stopp the Crooked Doctors” and “Pain Clinics Kill People.”

A GROWING VOICE

As word spread, the monthly rallies grew. Now as many as 50 protesters, mostly relatives of those who overdosed, show up at rallies in Fort Lauderdale, Oakland Park, Hollywood.

“We were overwhelmed with the number of cars that would stop. At every rally, a parent has gotten out their car crying. One mother from Hollywood told us she had not left her house for two years since the death of her son,’’ Colbert says. “She doesn’t have a computer so we have to call her for each rally and she is always there.’’

One Saturday in January, STOPP NOW held a three-hour rally in front of Commercial Medical Group in Oakland Park. Two weeks ago, that business was one of more than 20 suspected pill mills raided by narcotic agents. According to federal agents, Commercial Medical is one of seven clinics in South Florida owned by Vincent Colangelo; collectively, those businesses dispensed 660,000 oxycodone pills over a two-year period.

Next week, the women travel to Tallahassee where they will have separate meetings with Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Senators Mike Fasano and Dave Aronberg. Their message is unwavering: “We will tell them that these pill mills are destroying our community,’’ Colbert says.

Two days before the trip, Renee visited the site where her son was killed off State Road 7. She visits the memorial marker — which has a Drive Safely sign — often, decorating it for the seasons and holidays. On Friday, she left a green leprechaun hat.

St. Patrick’s Day was one of Blayne’s favorite holidays.

Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/03/05/v-print/2100118/sons-and-daughters-lost-to-a-pill.html#ixzz1FvAyHu00

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