Cameron Weiss’ mom remembers the competitive streak in her blonde-haired, smiling boy who started soccer at age 5.
“When all the little 5-year-olds would cluster at the ball, he’d be right in there, trying to get the ball,” she said, laughing. By the time he was playing football for La Cueva High School in Albuquerque, N.M., he was thriving in competition, becoming a wrestler, too.
But it began to unravel. He broke his collarbone at football practice sophomore year. An urgent care center prescribed him the opiate Percocet — an oxycodone painkiller, which he took immediately and again after surgery. But after he healed, his mom says, he broke his other collarbone in wrestling. More painkillers. When a return to wrestling brought cauliflower ear, a condition where the blood vessels in the ear burst, his doctor lanced the ear every day, giving him more pain. And more painkillers.
Jennifer Weiss-Burke described an agonizing scene filling a prescription for her 16-year-old. Laying on the floor of the pharmacy, he was holding his ear in excruciating pain. “He was so miserable.”
Over several months, they had filled four narcotic prescriptions, by urgent care physicians, a surgeon and an orthopedist. And while the drugs alleviated pain in winter and spring, he was sneaking pills come summer. His grandfather found an empty 15-year-old bottle of hydrocodone in his cabinet. One weekend, a friend introduced Cameron to a cheaper opiate: heroin.
“By October, he changed completely. He couldn’t keep up with wrestling practices, brutal practices—but before, he had lived for that,” his mom said. Cameron, a voracious reader who had loved Of Mice and Men, Huckleberry Finn and Lord of the Rings, was now failing AP English. He was angry, going “from 0 to 10 in seconds.”
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When he admitted his problem, Cameron went to 28-day rehabs, replacement therapy, counseling, sober living housing–and also jail. He read the Bible and AA book there, penned songs about addiction and recovery and emerged clean and sober.
But on one August night in 2011, he went out with buddies. They injected heroin four times, and he was home by 3 am. On Saturday morning, Aug. 13, at 7:30 a.m., his mom felt an urge to peek into his room. The once-promising high school athlete—the boy whose smile they could never forget — was dead in his bed, at age 18.
“I wish we would’ve had more time,” Jennifer Weiss-Burke says with a pause.
One quarter of the 7.5 million high school athletes suffer a sports injury each year. As they heal, those athletes may be exposed to habit-forming prescription opiates — like codeine, hydrocodone, morphine, oxycodone, hydromorphone, fentanyl. A study in the March 2014, Journal of Adolescent Health suggests injuries associated with high school athletics may mean taking part in sports increases the risk of prescription drug abuse and addiction.
“Had I known pain pills and heroin were so tied together, I would’ve monitored the painkiller a lot more. I would’ve had a week to 10 days of pain pills and then switched him to ibuprofen,” says Weiss-Burke, who has channeled her grief into forming an organization in New Mexico, Healing Addictions in our Community, which educates on addictions like heroin.
Finding the risks
Doctors hadn’t warned her about the risks, she said. “They just said, ‘here are the pain pills.’”
Cameron had once told her he didn’t know if he’d been addicted, as he had never tried to stop. He had loved how they made him feel. “They made him feel euphoric, like he was Superman.”
Dr. Chris Stankovich, a professional athletic counselor in Columbus, Ohio, says these athletes “never intended to be addicts.”
“Kids are getting addicted to opiates following a pattern of sports injury recovery,” he says. “They weren’t looking to get high.”
Yet not all who take a prescription painkiller will become addicted. Some kids will not be able to tolerate the feeling and won’t use it –even if prescribed. But under close medical care and short durations, many young athletes take these medications safely.
“It’s a myth that most pain medicines will make the child addicted—that’s [when taking it] for long periods of time or recurrent injuries,” said Dr. Samer Narouze, director-at-large of the American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine (ASRA), and chair, center for Pain Medicine, Western Reserve Hospital in Ohio.
Statistics on high school athletes are few. According to the 2009 Monitoring the Future study, approximately 12% of all 12th grade males and 8% of all 12th grade females said they had used a “prescription narcotic substance such as Vicodin or OxyContin in the previous 12 months,” writes Dr. Bryan Denham, a Clemson University professor, whose study was published in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse in 2014.
Approximately 15% of male athletes used a prescription narcotic in the previous year, to about 10% who did not participate in school athletics. Female athletes and non-athletes were closer in their use, Denham said.
Youth at risk
Youth are more vulnerable to developing addictions because of brain changes, and the desire for excitement and social situations, said Dr. Thomas Wright, an addiction expert, psychiatrist and chief medical officer for Rosecrance, who says 15-20% of their patients at its adolescent treatment center in Illinois have an opiate dependency.
“They move more quickly into the addictive pattern of it, just because they don’t have the mature rationalization, cognitive processes, desire for mature decisions,” he said.
He explained a “common stairway” of cigarettes, alcohol, pain pills–then heroin. “What they usually tell us is they find they like it, it takes care of the pain, they feel euphoria, but there’s usually a limited supply of pain pills. There’s parents, neighbors, grandparents’ medicine cabinets, but when that runs out, it’s expensive to buy. Then, heroin’s always — if they know the right people — in supply and cheaper to maintain.”
Wright noted two phases of opiate addiction: first, when a person feels their problems are relieved; but then as opiate receptors change, brain changes happen. “You become physically dependent on it, and it changes into different reasons why you use,” he said. “It’s not necessarily to feel good, but to avoid feeling bad.”
That’s what happened with former Celtics and Nuggets player Chris Herren. Recovered since 2008, he speaks to high schools about his decade-long battle with opiate painkillers and heroin. The disease gripped him to the point where he left an NBA game 20 minutes before start to meet a dealer.
“People ask me all the time, after I left the NBA, did you ever play high? And my answer is, ‘I couldn’t play unless I was.’ Unfortunately we call it a ‘high’ but there’s nothing high about it. It allowed me to function,” Herren said. His mission is now to spare others from that path.
‘There are other Tylers out there’
Ask Wayne Campbell of Pickerington, Ohio, about his athletic son, Tyler, in high school sports, and he’ll tell you about a boy who played varsity football as a defensive back and punt returner, played varsity baseball as a left-handed pitcher, and ran track his senior year. Tyler wanted to court Division 1 offers in football, and had a chance to play for a crosstown high school his senior year. He might’ve had a better opportunity to gain scholarship offers there, his dad said.
Campbell recalls when his son decided to stay on his team. “He told me, ‘These are my friends, Dad. They look to me for leadership, I could never leave them,’” Campbell said, his voice cracking. “What character. As a dad, that tears you up.”
Tyler landed a walk-on opportunity for the Akron Zips. He worked hard, playing all games as a freshman, winning a scholarship.
Campbell says Tyler’s troubles began in college, with 60 pain pills after shoulder surgery his sophomore year –and then more from teammates and friends.
The devoted parents enrolled Tyler in rehab programs when they discovered the addiction, and Tyler was recovering. But on July 22, 2011, “within 12 hours of coming home from rehab, Tyler OD’s,” said Campbell, whose son died of a heroin overdose.
Just four months later, Tyler’s teammate, former Zips QB Chris Jacquemain, who had also been in recovery and planned to try out for the Cleveland Gladiators the next week, died of a heroin overdose.
Campbell warns, if you abstain, and then use again that same amount from before, “it will kill you [because of tolerance.]” He wishes he would’ve had Tyler “locked to my right arm.” Tyler’s body was still upstairs when the coroner told him, in his living room, of deaths after rehab.
In that same living room packed full of people two weeks after Tyler’s death, the Campbell family and friends founded Tyler’s Light, an organization to tell of the dire dangers of drugs.
“It’s too late for Tyler, but there are other Tylers out there,” Wayne Campbell says. He estimates he has talked to 80,000 kids over the last four years in six states. “We think we’re helping, but we’re just a little piece.”
“You can’t wait for kids to die”
Campbell wants to reach as many students as he can “in their impressionable years, about what really happens with gateway drugs.” He talks to entire schools, not just athletes. “It’s like I’m pounding a tap hammer.”
“High schools don’t have a lot of people coming in and speaking about prescription drugs,” said Marcus Amos, a doctoral student in sports management at the University of Tennessee and founder of a program, Prevention Education for Athletes. Amos has studied the issue since 2006 when, working in a substance abuse clinic, he realized clients were battling multiple uses. He wondered about education for athletes because of their injuries. As a certified drug and alcohol counselor, he began talking to students.
“When I went into high schools, kids were saying it’s a normal thing [to pop prescription pain pills], and no one thought of it as ‘bad’ taking it from their parents,” he said. When he warned of mixing alcohol with prescriptions, a respiratory depressive danger, one student told him of pill parties.
“I asked what that was, and he says it’s where you get whatever you can from home, from your parents’ cabinets,” he said. “Then you come to the party and everyone drops pills they find at the door in a bowl.”
Kids “medicate themselves. It’s reckless cultural behavior at this age,” Amos said, urging high schools to be proactive. “You can’t wait for kids to die.”
Marking painful anniversaries