Athlete-to-addict: Painkillers turn players to heroin

Athlete-to-addict: Painkillers turn players to heroin

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Athlete-to-addict: Painkillers turn players to heroin

John poses at a halfway house in White Plains run by St. Christopher's Inn. He was a high school athlete who started taking pain medication for a sport injury but eventually became a heroin addict.

John poses at a halfway house in White Plains run by St. Christopher’s Inn. He was a high school athlete who started taking pain medication for a sport injury but eventually became a heroin addict.

John poses at a halfway house in White Plains run by St. Christopher's Inn. John was a high school athlete who started taking pain medication for a sport injury but eventually became a heroin addict.

John poses at a halfway house in White Plains run by St. Christopher’s Inn. John was a high school athlete who started taking pain medication for a sport injury but eventually became a heroin addict.

UPDATE: John DeFonce, former Harrison football player, dies of apparent overdose

Between treatment centers and halfway houses, DJ guesses he has been in 18 facilities.

Once a small-college All-American lacrosse player, the Yorktown resident, who also wrestled and played football in high school, became addicted to painkillers after he was hurt playing lacrosse in his junior year in college.

Then he tore his labrum and rotator cuff. DJ said that, to continue playing, he obtained prescriptions throughout the season for the opioid Percocet. The first prescription came from a school-based doctor who worked with the team.

That was 2010. Four years later, he was clinically dead in a halfway house on Long Island after overdosing on heroin. He was told he had been revived, died again, was revived and died again before he was brought back a final time.

“Every time you shoot, it’s Russian roulette,” said DJ, 26.

DJ does not blame his addiction on the doctor who prescribed the Percocet. But many argue that if heroin use is, indeed, Russian roulette, then the  game is started by doctors who over-prescribe opiate painkillers.

On the rise

The link between prescription painkillers and illicit drug use is well known. Last year, a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control,“Physicians are Fueling Prescription Painkiller Overdoses,” concluded that doctors were engaging in “dangerous” and “inappropriate” prescription practices.

Athletes, who may find themselves under the knife after a sports-related injury, may be particularly at risk.

Johnwas a strong, healthy kid from Harrison before his knee injury. The prescriptions he got for painkillers morphed into street purchases of pills, then heroin. He dropped 50 pounds.

At one point, he snorted heroin. Then he graduated to shooting it. A new day would bring chills and shaking and a mouth of bile — a night’s sleep was too long since his last hit. After John overdosed on a mixture of heroin and the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, he awoke in a hospital emergency room, checked himself out and shot up heroin again in the hospital parking lot, he said.

The 20-year-old went from high school football player to addict in just months.

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“I was working and stealing and selling everything I had, and borrowing,” he said, noting that when he made the transition to heroin he got it for $10 a bag in Yonkers.

‘Out of the norm’

Dr. Michael Cushner, a Westchester orthopedist who called opioids “100 percent addictive,” said he almost never prescribes such painkillers for non-fracture or non-operative injuries.

He said he doesn’t know any orthopedist who would prescribe an athlete a narcotic to “get someone through a season.”

“I’m not going to ruin a life and put my career in jeopardy so someone can play D-III lacrosse,” he said, adding if that’s happening it’s “so out of the norm.”

But many claim it’s not that infrequent, and visible at even the highest levels of athleticism.

A lawsuit filed against the National Hockey League by the family of the late Ranger Derek Boogaard, who died in 2011 of a mixture of the painkiller Oxycodone and alcohol, contends that he was prescribed vast amounts of pills, including 150 Oxycodone pills over a 16-day period after two surgeries.

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“I’ve heard people say, ‘I was a star athlete and was expected to be out on the field. I expected to be out on the field and I was in line for a scholarship.’ They’re ‘using’ as a way to stay on the field,” said David Gerber, who oversees counseling services at St. Christopher’s Inn, a Garrison rehabilitation facility.

Putnam County Judge James Reitz heads Putnam’s Treatment Court, a highly structured alternative to prison that requires substance abusers to submit to regular drug and alcohol testing and to attend group support meetings.

“After people run out of prescriptions or money they go to heroin because it’s so cheap,” Reitz said, noting that it can be found for $5 a bag. “We have a lot of (heroin) cases in our court and a couple have been athletes, even one Major League (Baseball) contender. This guy missed out on a lot of opportunities,”

John poses at a halfway house in White Plains run by St. Christopher's Inn. John was a high school athlete who started taking pain medication for a sport injury but eventually became a heroin addict.

John poses at a halfway house in White Plains run by St. Christopher’s Inn. John was a high school athlete who started taking pain medication for a sport injury but eventually became a heroin addict.

In-school response

“You go back 20 years ago and doctors were not giving out opioids to teens with sports injuries,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer at New York City-based Phoenix House and president of the advocacy organization Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. “It was rare they’d be given one or two Percocet or a Vicodin. Now, with an injury or getting wisdom teeth out, they’re given 30 to 40 tablets. They’re essentially heroin pills.”

But specific efforts to address abuse of prescription medication among athletes appears non-existent.

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association has focused much attention on concussion management but none on opioid use following injury.

Its executive director, Robert Zayas, said that the organization reacts to member schools’ concerns, and no schools have raised the issue of athletes’ prescription drug use. But Yorktown High School Athletic Director Fio Nardone believes that schools need to be involved.

“It’s becoming more prevalent for middle-class kids,” he said. “Heroin is a quicker high and a quicker buzz. It’s very real and it’s in our areas.” The Yorktown Police Department launched a program in the Lakeland School District this school year during which detectives spoke to members of Lakeland’s varsity and junior varsity football teams about substance abuse issues. Plans call for this to be extended into the Yorktown district.

Lieutenant Robert Noble, who oversees the program, stressed, though, that only a “very, very small portion” of the program is geared toward the specific problem of athletes and prescription painkillers.

Gerber, head of counseling at St. Christopher’s, said often drugs replace sports as an athlete’s focus; They give up sports for drugs.

“The problem is, once the season is over, they’re still using (opioid painkillers). We see a lot who don’t go back to playing the next year. Use has become the center part of their lives,” Gerber said. “All of a sudden, football is not as important anymore.”

Danny, an Orange County resident who celebrated his 28th birthday over the summer at St. Christopher’s in Garrison, has at least temporarily lost about 85 percent of his hearing in one ear to suspected drug-caused nerve damage. But seemingly more painful is his at least temporary loss of career.

In many ways, Danny, whose last name has been withheld, seems an unlikely candidate for the decade of drug addiction he has suffered.

I didn’t smoke (in high school). I didn’t drink,” he said. “They made fun of me. I was the sober one.”

But after twisting his ankle playing ice hockey, he was prescribed Oxycodone by a family physician. Then, after surgery for a compound leg fracture, he became addicted, starting with prescriptions for Dilaudid and Percocet.

“I felt like I could play sports better,” he said. “I told myself it made me happy and I could heal quicker.”

“I’d never think that a prescription from a doctor would lead to me sticking a needle in my arm but it did,” Danny said. “I sniffed and eventually shot heroin. This is someone who used to be scared to get a flu shot.”

“It consumed my life. I threw it all away. … It’s crazy how a little waxed bag can have so much power. I don’t want to live that life. I was a slave to that drug. It ran my life. … It was pathetic. I sit down and cry sometimes. I wasted so much time in my life.”

The three athletes quoted in this article asked for their identities to remain private as they work to rebuild their lives. 

Twitter: @HaggertyNancy

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