The fatal nature of addiction…

Chemical dependency…drug addiction…is a deadly disease.

  1. The latest fentanyl death is Nathan Orlofsky, a 28-year-old doctor and anesthesiology resident at the Medical College of Wisconsin, who was found dead Feb. 11 in the bathroom of the apartment he and wife shared in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. The medical examiner’s test results released this week show he died of a mix of fentanyl and another drug, midazolam.
  2. Katie Lee Howman, 30, was found dead in her bathroom four days before Christmas in 2013 after overdosing on a morphine-like painkiller drug Fentanyl. A nurse in the same large university medical center hospital overdosed and died from a combination of fentanyl and midazolam.
  3. Two anesthesiologists died after inadvertently overdosing on similar drugs to which they were secretly addicted. Each died with the needle in his arm, apparently miscalculating a dose. One had a new wife and a newer baby; the other a girlfriend. Neither was particularly depressed or lonely; rather, each was an upbeat, personable guy whose addiction escaped everyone’s suspicion.
  4. In December, a cardiovascular ICU nurse was found dead in the bathroom of a University of Michigan hospital. Months later, The Ann Arbor News reported that she died from an overdose of the opiate fentanyl and the benzodiazepine midazolam, two sedatives that are used for surgical patients. According to the CDC, drug overdose rates have more than tripled since 1990. More than 36,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2008, and most of these deaths were caused by prescription drugs. And prescription painkillers specifically were involved in 14,800 overdose deaths in 2008, more than cocaine and heroin combined, the CDC says.
  5. DelVecchio was found dead around 9:15 a.m. Dec. 6 in a locked bathroom at the Neuroscience Hospital. According to the autopsy, a syringe was also found in the bathroom and there were multiple needle marks on various parts of the body. Around 12:50 p.m. that same day, Sutton was found in a locked bathroom in the Cardiovascular Center, in cardiac arrest with a syringe and his doctor’s kit of pain medications. An autopsy report lists DelVecchio’s cause of death as fentanyl overdose. Sutton took morphine, police said.

I could keep going, there are far too many examples. These drugs are no joke, they are deadly. When combined with other drugs, even more so. A good example of this deadly combination is fentanyl and midazolam. Midazolam had an amnesiac effect so the user doesn’t realize how much they are taking. If Midazolam and fentanyl are taken together, the user, forgetting how much fentanyl they have taken, can take too much. The consequence can be respiratory failure and death.

As healthcare workers we think we know how much to take. We think we can take just a little bit more. Because we are ‘professionals’ we won’t overdose, we’re too smart for that. One day after work I had a 10mg vial of midazolam and a 1g vial of ketamine. When I woke a few hours later in my bed, both were gone. I had no memory of taking any of it accept the first injection of midazolam. I had needle marks all over my hands and arms…no memory of inflicting them. Had the ketamine been fentanyl I would now be dead. I wouldn’t have realized what I was doing because the versed wiped out any ability to judge what I was doing. I was terrified when I realized I had taken all of it. That did not stop me from continuing my drug use. It did not change my behavior in any way. In fact, my drug use continued to escalate.

I am a smart nurse. I know what these drugs can do. Knowledge did not stop me. It did not make me immune to the dangers of these powerful drugs. Knowledge actually made me stupid. To think I could control the effects of drugs or my reaction to them was naive. I did not overdose. I ended up in jail for stealing drugs. I was lucky. Many are not.

Next week…is it a disease?

About the Author

Kristin Waite-Labott is a registered nurse and recovering addict who has firsthand experience with the challenges of addiction. She now works as the Head Nurse Coach at Veritus, a virtual treatment program for nurses with substance use and mental health disorders, and is dedicated to helping nurses overcome addiction and making a difference in the lives of others. Kristin is passionate about addressing the growing problem of addiction among healthcare professionals and encourages open discussions and action to prevent it from spreading further.

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