IONIA, Mich– There is an epidemic in our country and some say the blame lies on the very people who take care of us.
It’s estimated that 54-million teens nationwide are abusing prescription drugs, according to the Michigan Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force’s 2015 report. It’s a deadly trend doctors are blaming on a lack of resources and poor communication.
Regardless of age, social class, or race, patients are getting hooked on prescription drugs at alarming rates. It’s something that happened to Tom Cole. He lives in Ionia with his wife, Sarah.
Tom and Sarah run a program in Ionia that helps those struggling with addiction. It’s called ‘True Freedom’. They often spend time wandering the city streets, praying over those who need it most.
“It helps me to just see joy in other people’s lives, that they can have the same true freedom I have,” Tom said.
But it’s freedom Tom and Sarah once lived without.
“I feel like addiction is a bondage. It’s suffocating. You want out, but you can’t get out,” Sarah said.
Tom says he started developing heavy addictions by age 16. Cravings that originated from painkillers he was over-prescribed after tearing up his knee. Soon, the painkillers were no longer enough.
Tom dropped out of high school and started abusing drugs. That’s when Tom says he started smoking bigger joints, drinking more hard liquor and started taking meth, buying cocaine and smoking crack.
“I was broke. I was suicidal. I was depressed. I was hurting other people, stealing all this stuff. I was basically being used by Satan to hurt other people,” Tom said, adding that he’s been in the hands of murderers and should have died numerous times. Whether it was Oxycontin or morphine pills, Tom says whatever the next step was in drug addiction, he was right there with it.
“For me, it was a gateway,” Tom said. “I would have already been dead…if I wouldn’t have gotten clean and sober.”
Opioid painkillers like Oxycodone are identified as one of the primary reasons behind the increase in prescription drug overdose deaths, leading to a surge in heroin use across the state. As opioids become harder to obtain and pills on the street become harder to find, those suffering with addiction turn to other drugs like heroin, according to Tom.
“We didn’t think this was going to be as big of a problem as it’s become,” said Dr. Corey Waller, an addiction physician and the Chief of Medicine at Spectrum Health. Waller is placing blame on prescriber’s themselves.
“‘Iatrogenically’ is when doctors cause a problem. ‘We did it.’ We are iatrogenically causing addiction at this point, based on the fact that we are still prescribing large amounts of opioid medication,” Waller said. “Once we found out this information, which would have been about six or seven years ago, we really didn’t change the habits at that point. People continued to prescribe even though we had new data that showed higher risk.”
Waller told FOX 17 that even when doctors found out upwards to 30 percent of people on chronic opioids became addicted, the drugs were still prescribed. Waller finds that when it came to learning about pain medicine and addiction, his training was minimal.
“I mean, you want to do the right thing for patients, but we weren’t really given all of the tools required and we didn’t receive the education,” Waller said. “I had a total of an hour of pain medicine training throughout my time in medical school.”
Waller is also placing blame on doctors that promised patients they’d be pain free.
“We started to set the expectations where we couldn’t meet them and the expectations were that you would be pain free, which is an inappropriate thing to tell people they can be,” Waller said. “That lead to them to push and push to the point where we felt we were obligated to write.”
Waller says the only way doctors are able to meet those expectations is by doing ‘bad medicine’. In 2014, doctors in Michigan wrote more than 21 million prescriptions for controlled substances, according to the Michigan Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force’s 2015 report.
Waller says there’s too much writing and not enough communication between doctors, hospitals and clinics. He says there’s a major wall in-between physicians and practitioners and those who work in mental and behavioral health.
“It is illegal for me to call the surgeon and tell them not to write them meds because they have addiction,” Waller said. “These are barriers built into the law and so it’s not a matter of I don’t want to, sometimes it’s literally I can’t, because it’s against the federal law.”
Waller is pushing for change along with the Michigan Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force. In 2015, Governor Snyder created the group in an effort to put an end to the prescription drug and opioid problem in our state. The task force is recommending additional training for prescribing controlled substances be available and that communication among pharmacies and state agencies improve.
In addition, Waller suggests that controlled substances not be used in treatment for those who are in the emergency room more than ten times in their life. According to Waller, that gives patients a 85 percent chance of forming an addiction to pain killing drugs.
Waller also suggests identifying those who are not using these medications safely, expanding treatment and monitoring treatment through a prescription drug monitoring program.
Tom and Sarah both agree that it’s easy to fall back into addiction and that it takes strength to stand. Tom attributes his sobriety to God.
“The clear conscience I have now, it helps me to just see joy in other peoples lives that they can have the same true freedom I have,” Tom said.
Tom is now 39. He’s been clean for 13 years.
“Every person who is struggling with addiction just needs to know how valuable they are, that they’re still valuable that they can be forgiven and that they can rejoice, that their lives can start over and have purpose,” Sarah said.
True Freedom is an addiction recovery program for men and women to find support and freedom with the word of God. The program is held every Monday at 7 p.m. at Restore Church in Ionia.