Elmira/Corning Regional Airport
SPECIAL REPORT: Hidden Epidemic
Written By: Tanja Rekhi
SPECIAL REPORT (WENY) -- There's a hidden epidemic here in the Twin Tiers that's quickly become the number one cause of accidental death and it's not what you might think of, like car crashes or fires. It's an addiction that knows no boundaries impacting people regardless of age and race. It often starts with prescription drugs. Then, just one hit can get people hooked.
Deb France says a prescription is what led to her son Jeremy to battle a hidden epidemic.
"When he was 16 or 17 he had his wisdom teeth pulled and he was given a prescription," said France.
Jeremy became addicted, eventually using opioids, then heroin. He turned to a life of crime, stealing to feed his habit.
"It's not a problem you talk about in your neighborhood so that everyone comes together," said France.
It's a problem Sheriff Deputies are running into, particularly in Owego.
"Some folks who have addiction problems will turn to other drugs that are easier to find and heroin has become one of those drugs that is unfortunately an easy drug to find now," said Deputy Tim Schmidt.
"If you look at the pictures here, I mean this one, would you ever think oh that little boy's going to grow up to be a drug addict?," said Lorrie Douglas.
Like Deb France, Lorrie Douglas speaks from personal experience.
Her son Matthew was abusing fentanyl, a narcotic used for severe pain. Drug investigators say that painkiller is being blended with heroin. Police are doing what they can to stop it from spreading, many undergoing specialized training, but it's not easy.
"Commonly there's hidden compartments that have maybe a like a ram or something or there's a loose wire and you connect the ram and maybe there's a compartment in there where they store their drugs," said Deputy Dan Gavin.
Mylea Buffo hid her addiction for seven years, abusing opioids and heroin. She says it's a struggle to stay clean.
"I kept using because there was no way out of it," said Buffo. "You wanna be sick with the flu for three months? That's what withdrawals are like and it's constant every day. It doesn't stop. The only thing that stops is to use drugs."
Recovery isn't easy. For Deb France, finding help for her son wasn't easy either
"We weren't able to get help locally, so we researched online and found a place in Pennsylvania that would give Suboxone which is a treatment for heroin and opiate addiction," said France.
Insurance only covered two weeks of that treatment. Then, it was out of pocket, and two hour trips.
"There's a real problem with access to meaningful effective treatment for those that find themselves addicted," said State Senator Tom O'Mara.
Forums are being held across New York. The State Senate is looking for ways to get people access to the help they need.
"Not many hospitals are willing to do the detox especially for the opiates," explained Pat Willock.
At St. Joseph's Hospital in Elmira has 20 detox beds, seeing patients from as far as Rochester and Buffalo.
"I think we need more and we only have I only know of maybe 5 doctors between here and Addison that do Suboxone because you have to be specially licensed," said Willock.
Treatment can be costly. Deb used Jeremy's college funds to later pay for additional rehab.
"Relapse is part of recovery unfortunately," said France.
That relapse came about two years later, and Jeremy never recovered. He committed suicide when he was 23 years old.
"I really wanted to put a face to this epidemic. And I really wanted people to know, it's not the one parent families. It's not the people that have no money. This affects everyone," said France.
"Some of the folks that were victims of overdose or addiction have young kids," said Deputy Schmidt.
Parents like Matthew, whose life was also cut short. When he was 29-years-old, his mom and dad found him dead in his bedroom, a syringe by his side. He left behind a young baby boy.
"The dynamic of our family has changed. I said, I am like a puzzle and there are three pieces to me. my three children and there's one piece missing. and it will never be found," said Lorrie Douglas.
There are tell tale signs of addictions. TCCASA (Tioga County Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse) in Owego says addicts often become withdrawn. They may also have changes in appetite or weight loss. You may also be able to see track marks on their arms if they are using heroin.
You can reach TCCASA at: 607-687-6349. Trinity of Chemung County is a community based treatment center. You can reach them at (607) 737-5215. You can find addiction treatment information with Arnot Health here: https://www.arnothealth.org/services/addiction-treatment.
Suboxone is a popular drug used to detox. You can find a doctor that is certified to administer it at: http://www.suboxone.com/contact