This story was originally published Aug. 12, 2014.
Melanie Curtis was in a meeting that morning in November 2011. She didn’t notice that her cellphone was being flooded with calls.
The police were trying to reach her. They needed to talk with her about her son.
Curtis had worked with recovering addicts for years. It was a passion she’d developed while working for the local housing authority.
“I kept hearing about people who were in treatment, or had substance-abuse disorder issues, and were at risk of being triggered or relapsing if they went back to where they had used before,” she said.
She launched a nonprofit in 2001 called Supportive Housing and Innovative Partnerships, whose services include housing and job training. In 2005, she opened Second Chance Building Materials Center in Downtown Boise’s Linen District. The store, owned by SHIP, employs people overcoming addiction. Proceeds help fund SHIP programs and its 11 “safe and sober” houses.
What Curtis didn’t know was that her own son, Michael Campbell, had become addicted to prescription drugs.
Such addictions have contributed to a 250 percent rise in drug-induced deaths in Idaho since 2000, according to the state Office of Drug Policy.
The prevalence of people ages 12 and older in Idaho who are abusing prescription painkillers has been above the U.S. average for years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Idaho’s death rate from opioid pain reliever overdoses in 2010 was about 11.8 for every 100,000 people - slightly lower than the national average of 12.4 per 100,000 population, according to the CDC.
Curtis’ son, Michael Campbell, was a 31-year-old customer service manager for Albertsons. He’d broken both wrists while playing soccer in his early 20s and was prescribed pain medication. His mother thinks medication to treat ongoing pain from the injury was how he “got the taste” for painkillers.
“As I go back, there were a lot of cues I missed,” Curtis said. There were pills missing from a medicine cabinet. Her son got angry when a doctor didn’t give him a refill on painkillers.
She suspected a problem and talked to her son about it, but he assured her everything was OK.
“I did not know the extent, the magnitude of where he was in the progression of the addiction,” she said. “People with addiction always have an excuse, and that’s because their body is telling them they need to have the substance or they’re going to die. So they’re driven to get it.”
One Tuesday night, Curtis got a call from her son’s fiancee: Campbell had been driving erratically, and when he got home he vomited.
“The first thing I did was count his medication,” Curtis said.
Campbell had been given 90 pills of Xanax the day before. He had about 30 left, with 14 stashed in a pocket, she said.
Curtis confiscated all of them and some muscle relaxers he’d been prescribed, she said.
The next morning, he came by her office. “He goes, ‘Mom, I really need help,’ ” Curtis said. He was nodding off in the chair as they talked.
Curtis, Campbell and his fiancee quickly made a plan to get him into outpatient rehabilitation for prescription drug addiction. Curtis found him a treatment provider to see. He was supposed to call the provider in the morning.
“I’m not one to pray much, but I looked up and said, ‘Take care of him,’ ” Curtis said.
The next morning, the police were calling Curtis. Her son had died overnight.
Curtis feels guilt over her son’s death and is in grief counseling to work through it.
She also is funneling her energy into making sure fewer parents experience such a loss.
“It was a personal and professional crisis for me,” she said. At SHIP, “we were the village down the river, trying to pull these babies out of the river and help them save themselves. Michael’s death made me realize I needed to go up the river and see what was going on.”
Curtis now sits on a state prescription drug-abuse work group for the Office of Drug Policy.
She has created a project, Connect the Pieces, aimed at getting people to talk about prescription drug addiction.
Connect the Pieces just built an online game for children. A superhero named Pharmacist Phil puts pharmaceutical drugs in locked storage, keeps people from sharing medications and teaches drug safety. The game is designed to get children and parents talking about prescription drug safety. Visit connectthepieces.org and click on the “Game” tab to play.
Idaho is one of many states that tracks painkiller and other scheduled-drug prescriptions.
Idaho’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program collects data and records on the more dangerous and addictive drugs given out by prescribers and pharmacists. Idaho prescribers dispensed 2.8 million prescriptions for controlled substances last fiscal year, the most recent for which data are available, according to Idaho Board of Pharmacy Executive Director Mark Johnston.
Johnston said pharmacists often are “the safety valve” for drug distribution — spotting abuse and potentially toxic drug interactions.
But Idaho’s system has its limits.
Idaho is one of several states that do not require doctors to check the database before writing a prescription. Johnston said prescribers and other authorized database users, such as law enforcement, filed about 182,000 requests for medication records during the latest year available - roughly one request for every 15 drugs dispensed.
Enforcement is getting better, Johnston said. He noted the creation of a Drug Enforcement Agency tactical diversion squad in Boise and two recent raids on Idaho doctors.
Addressing the problem
The Idaho Legislature this year changed the law so health care providers must register in the system by the end of 2014. When that happens, Johnston said, more prescribers probably will use the system and double-check their patients’ medications. About 37 percent of all Idaho prescribers are registered now, Johnston said.
The board also can alert doctors when the database shows a patient getting drugs through several sources.
Those changes may help stem the tide of drugs such as hydrocodone, an opioid, ending up in the wrong hands, Curtis said.
But a database is no substitute for attention from family, friends, clergy, teachers and medical professionals, she said.
Her son wasn’t stealing from a grandparent’s medicine cabinet or swiping pills from a friend - something that can happen when people don’t lock up medications. He also didn’t hop from doctor to doctor, trying to play the system, Curtis said.
In the end, Curtis says, Campbell had valid prescriptions for all three drugs in his system when he died — Xanax, hydrocodone and a muscle relaxant. Certain combinations of those drugs can kill a person. Campbell had just been prescribed a hydrocodone medication, and that alone was at toxic levels in his body when he died, Curtis said.
“The downfall in the system was they obviously did not check the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program,” she said.
Curtis hopes that Connect the Pieces and awareness campaigns — such as Lock Your Meds Idaho — will help people like her son get the treatment they need before it’s too late, and make it less burdensome to ask for help.
Connect the Pieces also has a new program called Recovery Wellness that offers special coaching and healthy activities for people struggling with addiction.
“I know Mike probably avoided treatment because he felt shame,” she said. To beat addiction, Idaho doesn’t just need families to talk about prescriptions, “We need to do it on a community level, too.”