Heroin Highway: Part 3 - Virginia, A Commonwealth in Crisis
WASHINGTON (ABC7) —
All week 7 ON YOUR SIDE is traveling along Interstates 70 and 81 from Baltimore through Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia. The nationwide heroin epidemic which knows no boundary has taken hold all along the corridor causing local law enforcement to nickname it the "Heroin Highway."
HEROIN HIGHWAY PART THREE: VIRGINIA , A COMMONWEALTH IN CRISIS
7 ON YOUR SIDE revealed the epidemic in Virginia worsened last year. A top state health official explained final toxicology reports are still coming in, but based on the confirmed number of deaths, her official estimate of the number of fatal heroin and prescription drug overdoses will stand around the 800 mark for 2015. A grim report as it appears the number of dead is on the rise.
WILL A MOVIE SAVE LIVES?
A narrator's voice filled a jam packed cafeteria in Culpeper, Va.
"Heroine doesn't care what your skin color is, how smart you are, how old you are," he said.
As Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring watched with the audience, the documentary, Heroin: The Hardest Hit captivated the room. No one spoke as scenes of ambulances, needles, and graveyards filled the screen. The words of grieving families followed as they all retold tales of heroin and loved ones lost. Interviews with heroin addicts both past and present intermingled with frustrated sound from law enforcement across the state.
Here was the bet: A real inside unapologetic look at heroin could save lives.
The man who was casted the bet was Virginia's Attorney General himself.
Herring spearheaded the educational project when he wrapped up a statewide tour he held after taking office. He said resident after resident only wanted to talk to him about the scourge of heroin in their communities.
Herring cast a wide net, hired an award winning director, and ended up with a movie so raw, it not only quieted a standing room only cafeteria, it also brought tears to the eyes of many.
"We didn't sugarcoat anything. We wanted to tell like it was," explained Herring.
In 2014, more Virginians died from heroin and prescription drug overdoses than in car accidents. Debbi Bost's 27-year-old son, Keith Edwards of Culpeper was one of the 728 fatal overdoses that year. When the lights came up in the room after the movie finished, she was wiping away tears...again.
She explained, "Even though I know what drug addiction is....it [the documentary] actually let me see a glimpse of the other part of my son's life."
Bost described a grave feeling helplessness over a drug whose hold on her son was so strong, she said, she knew he was going to do die.
"You get to a point and you know there's nothing you can do," said Bost.
She painfully recalled her son's final days, "I prayed. I said, God if he is not going to get better, if his life is going to be worse... take him home don't let him suffer anymore, and two weeks later he was dead."
"We are on what is known as the heroin highway," explained Winchester City Police Chief Kevin Sauzenbacher.
The area surrounding Winchester faced a jump of one fatal heroin overdose in 2012 to 33 deaths in 2014.
"You can see the chart rise in the number of kids in foster care almost directly correlated with the number of deaths we've had from heroin overdoses," explained the chief.
Newborn babies of opioid addicted mothers were also falling victim to the heroin epidemic.
"We typically will have somewhere between three and five babies in the NICU on a daily basis that are being treated for withdrawal," said Dr. Teresa Clawson, a neonatologist with Mednex, Winchester Medical Center.
"It is a miserable thing to watch, it really is," said Dr. Clawson
Dr. Frank Restrepo, vice president of medical affairs at Winchester Medical Center said, "You couldn't help but notice you had a crisis brewing on your hands."
Clawson explained they are treating babies in the frantic throes of withdrawal with a blood pressure medication to calm their nervous system and morphine which is also an opioid when needed.
"You have to treat the drug that your body has become dependent on with a similar drug that will hit the same receptors and gradually wean it away," Clawson said.
Winchester is addressing the demand side of the epidemic with its Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition. For more info click here.
"We represent law enforcement, health care professionals, and treatment provider's parents who have lost children," explained Executive Director Lauren Cummings.
Chief among their goals is treatment. "We are looking for affordable, accessible treatment options," said Cummings.
The Washington Field Division of the DEA is going after the supply side by beefing up its presence.
Special Agent in Charge Karl Colder explained, "That was an office in DEA where we only had two agents assigned to Winchester Virginia we now have a supervisor and four agents.
Police and DEA agents are treating overdoses as crime scenes.
"Conducting an investigation on where the heroin came from and then back to the source from there," explained Chief Sauzenbacher.
In the all-out effort to get to the source of the problem from every angle possible.
NEXT STOP ON THE HEROIN HIGHWAY SERIES: MARTINSBURG, WEST VIRGINIA "A SUN UP TO SUN DOWN BATTLE"