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Abuse of prescription drugs widespread

June 26, 1999|By ANDREA ROWLAND

Pamela Woodward knows now that happiness doesn't come in a pill.

It was a revelation that came hard, a lesson learned only after she had become an addict, a criminal and a statistic.

The 29-year-old Hagerstown waitress was addicted to prescription drugs for three years.

She faked prescriptions, nursed a rotting tooth, and endured the daily discomfort of heel spurs to get the pain pills she sometimes took 12 times a day.

She even bought a prescription once from a stranger she saw walking out of a hospital.

And although she tried to quit once in 1998, she didn't succeed until she went to jail.

"I got good," she said in an interview. "I learned how to manipulate."

She had a lot of company. About 30 percent of the 14 million Americans addicted to drugs are addicted to prescription drugs, according to the 1997 National Household Survey of Drug Abuse and Sgt. John Burke, commander of the Pharmaceutical Diversion Division at the Cincinnati Police Department.

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Burke, who speaks nationally about the problem, said only cocaine abuse may be more widespread.

Abuse of Woodward's drug of choice, the pain killer hydrocodone, increased by 200 percent from 1988 to 1995, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Woodward said she decided to tell her story so other people might get help for their own addictions.

'Doctor shopping'

Her drug habit began after she saw a doctor for painful heel spurs and was given a prescription for Vicodin, a brand name for hydrocodone with acetaminophen.

At first, she took only the prescribed dosage.

But when a friend of hers told her she could get high from the medicine, Woodward began abusing the drug, taking as much as three times the recommended dosage.

In her highs, she found an escape from boredom and from feelings of inadequacy that stemmed from a failed attempt at romance and a singing career, she said.

The Vicodin numbed her physical pain and gave her the confidence "to do anything and be anything that I wanted," she said.

"I would go off in grocery stores. I had no control over my mental actions," she said. "But I didn't feel like I could survive without them."

To get the drugs, Woodward began "doctor shopping," visiting dentists, physicians and hospital emergency rooms in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

She capitalized on her natural acting ability, deceiving health care professionals into prescribing Vicodin and a stronger version of the drug, Lortab.

A Baltimore dentist gave Woodward three Lortab prescriptions with refills after one visit and two canceled appointments, she said.

Emergency room doctors at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Ranson, W.Va., and Frederick Memorial Hospital also sent her home with prescriptions, she said.

She visited Frederick Memorial as often as three times a week, she said.

"If I acted really good in my pain, if I went overboard, they would give me Percocet. But Lortab, which is a stronger form of Vicodin, was my drug of choice."

80 to 90 pills a week

Doctors are aware of people like Woodward, and Frederick Memorial has policies to deal with them, said Dr. John Molesworth, director of emergency medicine there.

Staff members are instructed to give only a limited number of pills when they prescribe pain medication and are supposed to alert Molesworth if they become suspicious of a patient's sincerity, he said, declining to speak specifically about Woodward's case.

Patients who visit the emergency room more than five times in a year for pain medication also get a letter from Molesworth, saying the hospital staff is aware of the frequency of visits and urging follow-up care with primary care physicians.

The letter also explains that the hospital will exercise more caution when dispensing prescriptions for pain killers, Molesworth said.

Officials at Jefferson Memorial did not return phone calls.

Early in her addiction, Woodward said, she never had any problem getting prescriptions.

"I was good for three or four refills from each doctor. I didn't get here by myself," she said. "I knew what I was doing was wrong, but when it came time for the next high, I took it."

Eventually, she ingested 80 to 90 pills a week, at a cost of about $1 per pill.

'I was better than they were'

Abusers like Woodward are people "pursuing the chemical," said Judy Brown, clinical coordinator at Washington County Health Department's division of addictions and mental health services.

"There is a whole segment of the population that are chemically dependent without even knowing they are addicted," Brown said.

They cross all social classes, she and police said.

"I've locked up street mopes, physicians and nurses. People in the medical profession, legal profession, businessmen and stay-at-home moms," said Maryland State Police Sgt. Tom McElroy, a member of the DEA's Tactical Diversion Squad in Baltimore.

Woodward grew up in a middle-class home "on the good side of the tracks." She said she thought of drug addicts as "people who are trashy."

"In my frame of mind at the time, I was better than they were," she said.

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