T hough it’s largely been a wonderful last few months, with the birth of my beautiful twins and the opening of our second location, tragedy often strikes in the midst of joy. I’m sick and saddened to report that my 31-year-old second cousin, Michael, passed away last month. After years battling with a worsening opioid addiction, he finally succumbed to the drugs and overdosed. After a brief revival, followed by a heart attack, he became completely unresponsive. In a decision I would never wish on anybody, my cousin Sandra, his mother, made the call to take him off life support and allow him to pass away peacefully. Michael’s story just goes to show how far the opioid epidemic reaches in this country. Opioid addiction can get its hooks into everyone: the poorest of the poor, the richest of the rich, every race, religion, and creed, whether you live in low-income housing or on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. Before Michael was prescribed his first bottle of painkillers and became physically dependent, he was an electrician by trade. A few years later, he became a corrections officer, until the addiction overwhelmed his life to the point that he could no longer hold a job. He reached out for help and slid in and out of rehab, but, apparently, he couldn’t overcome the physical, biological fact of his addiction. As I dwell on the chain of organizations and individuals who have contributed to the opioid crisis today, I become more and more furious. In 2017, 1,901 people were killed as a result of opioid use in New Jersey alone. Back in 2016, the estimated death toll for the whole country was a staggering, horrific 62,497 people. pharmaceutical companies, intentionally burying the inherent dangers of these medications, flooding the market to the point of insanity, and aggressively marketing them not only to doctors, but to regular health care consumers. Then there are the doctors. While I do believe the vast majority of physicians and surgeons are genuinely dedicated to helping people, all it takes is that one unscrupulous doctor to poison the whole well. That one guy writing a prescription for hydrocodone In Memory of My Cousin Michael The Opioid Epidemic Hits Home I won’t bite my tongue here; this crisis was instigated by people for whom profit took priority over human lives. First came the
My cousin Sandrawith her two children, Danielle andMichael
that will last the patient way longer than they need is worse than the drug dealer on the street. Because he knows better.
And then there are those who stigmatize addiction to the point that it becomes virtually impossible to seek adequate treatment. We blame the addicts and fail to offer the programs that lift people like my cousin out of the throes of addiction, and they inevitably turn to street heroin, or even worse, synthetic alternatives like fentanyl. The simple fact is, if you take even mild opioids for long enough, you will become addicted. In the wake of Michael’s death, I’ve been doing everything I can to educate those around me on the dangers of opioid use. Another cousin in my family recently had a hip replacement, so I made sure to stress that he needed to be careful, and especially to keep his pills far out of the reach of his children. When a postoperative patient comes through my clinic for rehab, I do everything I can to alleviate their pain naturally and steer them away from their dependence on medication. I’ve even sat down with Lia Grace, my 7-year-old daughter, and talked to her about drug abuse. I’ve long been passionate in my fight against the opioid crisis, but I never imagined that it would hit this close to home. It’s unreal to think that I’ll never see Michael again. In our tight-knit extended family, he was like a little brother to me. I watched him grow up from a scrappy little kid into a truly great man with so much to live for. Every day, I wake up and the awful, sick weight of his absence resettles on my mind. But all I can do is get up and step back into the chaos of everyday life to be there for my incredible family as best I can. Certainly, it’s what Michael would have wanted.
–Dr. Michael Russo
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