Dangers of heroin, prescription drugs detailed in forum at WHS

Courtney Fiessinger tells the crowd of her past drug use last Tuesday at WHS. (Alan Dooley photos)

In the 1960s TV series “Lost in Space,” a robot always warned the show’s young star when a threat appeared by saying “Danger, Will Robinson!”

An estimated 125 parents, students and interested citizens sat in silence last Tuesday night in the Waterloo High School auditorium as they learned that danger is indeed upon us here in Monroe County.

They were told the most powerful drug in the world – heroin — is in our county and our schools and is killing both parents and children. Yes. Heroin. In Monroe County. All around us.

The “Addiction Town Hall” forum was provided by the Anti-Heroin Movement in cooperation with WHS and local health officials. The event  brought together local authorities, former addicts and people who have lost loved ones to drugs.

Throughout the evening, people fighting against  drugs told their stories.  So did those who have succumbed to the allure of various drugs, including a 19-year-old who started indulging at age 12 – while she was attending Waterloo Junior High School.

Monroe County EMS Lead Supervisor Scott McDaniel offered statistics. But these numbers were much more than simple figures. They represented people.

“In 2012, we recorded 16 overdoses in Monroe County.  Three resulted in deaths.” He told how two were dead when EMS personnel arrived. Another was clinically dead, and was later pronounced dead at the hospital. McDaniel said two overdoses involved persons under 18 years of age; five were in the 18-26 age group; nine were in the 30-56 age bracket.

McDaniel added that heroin is much more potent today than only a few years ago.

“In 2000, we saw street heroin being cut with various substances and sold at a purity of 18 to 20 percent. And remember,” he said, “the stuff isn’t made by licensed drug manufacturers, so you didn’t know what the other 80 percent was.  Today, we are seeing heroin sold with a purity of up to 95 percent. That is potentially lethal the first time it is used. The first time.”

Waterloo Police Chief Jim Trantham said there’s even more drug abuse in the county than what many have already read about in the local paper.

“We had 45 charges of possession of marijuana last year.  We had three more for heroin  Those were just chargeable offenses,” Trantham said. “We had evidence – names, events – that don’t meet the threshold to allow us to go to the State’s Attorney. So, what you read and see about is just a tiny part of the problem.”

Trantham also told of the impact of people who steal to support drug habits.

“We’ve arrested people from here and from as far away as Florida. They have a plan and a route in mind,” he said. “We arrested a father-son team who were both addicts here last year.  They sat in our interview room and told us matter-of-factly, how they planned each day, deciding what to steal and from whom, to support their daily drug needs.”

Local physician Dr. Jay Pickett presented a doctor’s opinion of drug abuse – mostly of pain killers that double as illegal drugs if used by the wrong people.

“I’m the only legal drug dealer here this evening,” he started.

Monroe County Coroner Vicki Koerber speaks during the forum.

Pickett then told how the doctor-patient relationship is supposed to be one of trust.  But more and more, he has to check his trust of information from patients.

“I have to be on guard,” he said. “I have to be so for my patient’s health and for my license.”

Pickett cited patients who may say they have no insurance at the time.  They may say, “So I can’t afford physical therapy,” or “I’m allergic to a list of lesser strength medications. So can you just prescribe me some pain meds?”

He said the patients he accepts must agree to be tested for drugs.

“When you prescribe 180 oxycodone tablets, and find none in their system, you get suspicious. You suspect they may be getting them at one price and selling them at a much higher price on the illegal market,” he told.

Pickett also cited a mother who had legitimate pain issues, for whom he prescribed 30-day supplies of medication which she seemed to run out of well before the end of the month. Turns out, her son was stealing from the medicine cabinet.

Then came the story of Courtney Fiessinger. The 19-year-old walked quietly to the podium and started her story. Cheerful at first, Fiessinger was soon crying as she detailed her dark journey.

Fiessinger told how she started using marijuana at age 12. The problem grew rapidly from there.

“I went straight to hard stuff.  I never bothered with beer,” she said.

Fiessinger was using heroin by age 15.

“On the surface, I appeared pretty normal,” she said.  “I attended school, was in the color guard and band.”

Fiessinger also tried to dispell some preconceptions about heroin.

“It’s not confined to dirty, skanky people in a dark alley in a big city,” she said. “It’s not a high-priced luxury drug, either.  I used to get it by asking my parents for money to go to a movie or get a pizza.”

She told of partying all night and then going to WHS the next day – still high. She wove a timeline of expulsions, rehab efforts and going back to shooting up.

“I didn’t have a drug problem” she emphasized. “I just didn’t want to stop.”

The people she hung out with were into similar behavior.

“I thought they were my friends, of course,” she said. “But finally one night I got high – I apparently overdosed and was completely out. So my friends drove me to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. They dumped me off there.  And my friends,” she paused, “they left with my phone, my wallet and my car!”

“Your fellow addicts don’t really care about you.”

Fiessinger finally turned away from this destructive behavior in May 2012. But she said she is not cured.

“Every day… every day,” she said, “I have to do something to be well. Every day.”

Fiessinger later took a question from the audience about the long-term recovery rate from heroin.

“It’s three percent,” she said.

A distressed mother, Chris Duren, closed the presentation segment as she  stood before the microphone to tell of her son Brandon’s loss a year ago. She was able to speak only a few words before breaking down, sobbing and grimacing in anguish. She stood staring, as a recovering addict rushed to her side and gripped her arm.

After a long pause and several deep breaths, she continued, breaking down several more times.  She told of a loved son who everyone looked up to.  She spoke of a joyful young man who was her very life.  She told of a son who shot up heroin and time after time, assured her he would never do it again.

And she told how he was found dead in a seedy motel in St. Louis.  She cried some more.  A lot more.

As Chris Duren returned to her seat on the stage, she looked out into the audience and urged listeners: “Pay attention to your children. And pay attention to the people your children are hanging out with.”

During a question-and-answer session, Monroe County Board Chairman Delbert Wittenauer expressed shock at the stories he had heard.

“We need to listen,” he said.  “We need to learn from those who have been there,” he said, pointing to the small somber group on the stage. “We need to learn, or we may be doomed to be where they have been ourselves — to be the ones to sit up there and share our grief next year.”

Monroe County Coroner Vicki Koerber wrapped up the evening by laying out the road ahead.

“We have met with teachers in junior high and high schools in Columbia and Waterloo,” she said. “We are scheduling Valmeyer. In April, we will start back again, this time with the students in our schools, with their counterparts telling them of the horrors of heroin and other drugs.”

Koerber added that this will not be an effort of “adults telling young people what they should and shouldn’t be doing.  It will be their counterparts telling of what they have done and the consequences.  They will be told that nobody is ‘bulletproof.'”

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Alan Dooley

Alan is a photojournalist -- he both shoots pictures and writes for the R-T. A 31-year Navy vet, he has lived worldwide, but with his wife Sherry, calls a rambling house south of Waterloo home. Alan counts astronomy as a hobby and is fascinated by just about everything scientific.
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