Medication helps Southington man kick heroin habit
Freeman Heath, 31, of Southington hasn’t used heroin for more than a month after being injected with naltrexone, an FDA-approved medication for alcohol addiction that also treats opiate addiction effectively. Left: The scarring from repeated heroin use can be seen in his right arm.
SOUTHINGTON - Soon after Freeman Heath received a naltrexone shot designed to help him beat his heroin addiction, he put the "relapse is part of recovery" adage to the test. Heath investigated the shot's capabilities by using heroin after having received it, and to his joyous surprise, the heroin did not work.
Heath did not get high.
"I said to myself, 'Thank God the dope didn't work,' " Heath said. "I was giddy like a little kid when I realized."
Heath, a 30-year-old service technician for an irrigation company, is one of a growing number of former heroin and opiate addicts to receive the naltrexone shot. The FDA-approved medication for alcohol addiction also treats opiate addiction effectively. One shot is effective for about a month, and for those four weeks, recovering addicts cannot relapse, because the heroin simply does not get them high.
"I've been on other drugs and none of them really work," Heath said. "But this one, it's like it was sent from God in a needle, it works so well. My whole life turned around as soon as I got it."
After surviving a nearly fatal car accident in Florida two years ago, Heath's doctor prescribed him OxyContin for pain and he was quickly hooked on the opiate.
When Heath moved to Southington and could no longer get his OxyContin prescription easily, he turned to heroin as a cheaper alternative.
"Everyone that does heroin knows someone that has died from it," said Heath, who is one of seven members of Parents 4 A Change - a Southington group that aims to raise awareness of and education about opiate abuse among teenagers - to receive the shot, all of whom are in full recovery. "Now that I've gotten the shot, I want to reach friends who are still using and tell them about this option and how much better it is than the other pills we have all tried that don't work."
Heath has also used methadone and suboxone, medicine administered in pill form designed to suppress narcotic withdrawal and opioid cravings for up to 36 hours. The short window of time these medications are effective and the responsibility assumed by a recovering addict to take the pills consistently are these medications' downfalls, said Rahim Shafa, a Massachusetts doctor who administers naltrexone.
"Those who are drug addicted are already in a confused state," Shafa said. "Add to that the responsibility of choosing to take their pills over getting high, many will choose to get high."
He added that the rate of compliance is low for all drug users.
"Compliance is low for people who take blood pressure, asthma or heart medication just as it is low for people trying to free themselves from addiction," Shafa said.
Eighty percent of deaths from drug overdoses occur after a person has been clean for a period of time and then relapses, Shafa said. That individual's tolerance for the drug is no longer as high as it was when he or she was using regularly. Before the heroin injection is even complete, Shafa said, the recovering addict who made one mistake could stop breathing.
"In these situations, the drug shuts down the body's breathing mechanisms," Shafa said. "This is why naltrexone is so crucial; there is no room for relapse."
Naltrexone is manufactured by DuPont, for treatment of alcohol addiction that is reportedly an effective treatment for opiate dependence. It can be injected or surgically implanted in a patient's fat tissue using a time-release pellet.
"This drug enters the body and sits on the brain imitating the opiate for the brain's receptors," Shafa said. "Because this drug sits on the brain and sits tight, it won't allow the opiate to sit there, too. If a user shoots heroine, [he or she] won't get high. Instead, the brain will reject the heroin and the user will feel very sick."
Arlene DuMais, an advanced practice registered nurse, administers naltrexone shots for patients at a residential rehabilitation center in Stonington and at her private-practice office in Groton.
She can bill a patient's insurance provider for the cost of the shot or simply charge the patient $25 per shot. DuMais administered Heath's shot about 2½ weeks ago.
"I've opened my doors to people who really want to get off these drugs and I've given them a place to get this treatment," DuMais said. "There doesn't seem to be anyone else in the area offering it."
Along with the shot, DuMais said it's important for recovering addicts to augment their treatment with therapy and to make new friends who do not use or sell drugs.
"These addicts cannot realize the skills and potential they've had all along until they are clean and no longer associate with the life they had while using," DuMais said.
Heath's friend Debbie Dailida, another former heroin addict who has been clean for 30 days, said she has never seen Heath smile as much as he has since he got the shot.
"He's so happy. We all are," Dailida said. "He and I are looking forward to enjoying the fun times we used to have, now only they will be clean fun times and we'll be able to remember them."
Noreen Heath Howard said her son's addiction was devastating. Before the shot, nothing she did to try to help him worked.
"Freeman was in a bad place and I could not get him out," Heath Howard said. "But now I see the old Freeman again. This shot gave me back my son."