Heart of the matter

Summit on opioids brings statistics to life through stories of death

Austin Eubanks shared his experience, both onstage and off, during the California Opioid Summit last week at Chico State.

Austin Eubanks shared his experience, both onstage and off, during the California Opioid Summit last week at Chico State.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Sobering statistics:
Information presented at the California Opioid Summit included:
· Opioids are the third most prescribed medication in the U.S.
· Americans get 289 million opioid prescriptions annually; the total population is 326 million.
· The U.S., with 4.6 percent of the world’s people, takes 80 percent of all opioids.
· Americans use 99 percent of the world’s oxycodone.
· In the U.S., 68,000 people died from drug overdoses last year (up 12 percent from 2017).

Austin Eubanks will never forget April 20, 1999. Even if he could, he wouldn’t—he relives that day frequently, recounting its most terrifying moments, in front of rapt audiences around the country.

That morning, per usual on a weekday at 11:19 a.m., Eubanks sat with his best friend, Corey, in the library, eating lunch. As the 17-year-olds bandied their after-school options—fishing or golf—Corey interjected, “Sounds like gunshots.”

They dismissed the notion, immediately returning to conversation. The thought of a school shooting was “unfathomable,” Eubanks explained last Tuesday (May 22) at Chico State; there was no point of reference.

Until that day. Until that school: Columbine High.

Five minutes later, teacher Patti Nielson rushed in and told everybody to get under the tables, “someone has a gun.” She chronicled the unfolding tragedy on a 911 call (which Eubanks played). Within another five minutes, Corey would be the last of 10 students killed in the library. Eubanks—among the 12 injured, shot in the hand and knee—scrambled out the back door, only then realizing how badly he was hurt.

Receiving medical treatment in a triage area, he “couldn’t feel anything” emotionally. Only after a half-hour, when his father scrambled over a fence to reach his son, did Eubanks experience a catharsis. He went limp from screaming in his father’s arms. Comfort came at the hospital, medicinally, with morphine and sedatives.

“I remember it felt like someone put a warm blanket over me,” he said. “And I was drawn to that feeling.”

In retrospect, he said, within a week of leaving the hospital, he probably didn’t need narcotics for pain relief. Yet, he went home with a 30-day supply of hydrocodone—aka Norco—and was prescribed more three days later, giving him two months’ worth.

Eubanks soon fell into an “addiction spiral” of prescription drugs, recreational drugs, alcohol—“anything that would let me detach and not be present,” he said. “I was not willing to experience the stages of grief.”

It took him until April 2011 to find lasting sobriety. Now, he’s chief operating officer for Foundry Treatment Center in Steamboat Springs, Colo., a three-hour drive from Columbine.

Eubanks came to Chico for the California Opioid Summit, co-sponsored by Butte County’s Behavioral Health and Public Health departments as well as the Butte-Glenn Medical Society. The two-day event addressed the nationwide epidemic of opiate abuse, which has resulted in escalating overdoses and deaths (see infobox); Eubanks contributed not only his story, but also a thought-provoking premise echoed by others.

“Pain isn’t always tissue damage,” he said, “and when [medical practitioners only] treat it as such, you’ll see what we see today.”

Indeed, by declaring that “opioids reduce symptoms of emotional pain better than symptoms of physical pain,” Eubanks intersected the message of another keynote speaker, John Underwood, who addressed a half-full Bell Memorial Union for a community forum last Monday evening and a full BMU the next afternoon.

The symposium drew professionals from across California to hear from nationally prominent experts such as Eubanks and Underwood. As director of the Human Performance Project, an organization that develops science-based training regimens, Underwood has coached Olympians and advised sports federations as well as the U.S. military. His campaign for drug-free athletics, Life of an Athlete, includes Butte County’s Athlete Committed program.

“People can probably stand a lot more pain than they think they can stand,” he told the community forum, after detailing Navy SEAL training sessions he’s witnessed. SEALs call pain “weakness leaving the body,” he said; for athletes, “pain is a regular and often daily part of life.” Everyone has a pain threshold and develops tolerance to a level of pain over time.

“The legitimate intent for the administration of opioids is extreme pain,” he continued. But people self-report pain, with no external objective measure for comparison or confirmation; “sometimes they’re not in as much pain as they’d lead you to believe.” The pain level may get distorted subconsciously or—as with addicts seeking pills—intentionally.

Like Eubanks, Underwood zeroed in on emotional ache, such as the pain of social exclusion. More broadly even, “pain is an emotion—an emotional response.” He also noted that studies have shown “pain is often increased by attending to it.”

Underwood, whose wife is a physician assistant, presented medical information on the impacts of opioid use, including brain scans, neurochemical data and research. His refrain on the epidemic was more visceral than factual: “People should be pissed this ever got going where it’s going.”

April Rovero, like Eubanks, draws deeply from a well of personal pain that most would choose to leave untapped. She speaks to audiences nationwide, twice before at Enloe Medical Center. She lives in San Ramon but flew in from Connecticut, where she was vacationing with her husband, expressly to share her story at the university.

Rovero’s day of tragedy was Dec. 18, 2009—a week before her son, Joey, was to come home for Christmas from Arizona State.

That Thanksgiving, she and her husband learned Joey’s roommates had stopped paying their share of the rent for their apartment; what they didn’t know was his friends’ addictions to narcotics would lead their son to a doctor and pharmacy in Southern California, where he’d obtain prescription pills to resell to pay the bills.

She described Joey as a “popular kid” who was “living the life” at ASU. He belonged to a fraternity and enjoyed the party scene, yet had a five-year relationship with the girlfriend he’d dated since senior year of high school.

Having just finished finals, he found the presence of pills tempting. Sampling opioids with alcohol proved a lethal combination: Joey died in his apartment at age 21.

“I miss him every single day,” Rovero said, “because I talk about him every single day.”

Until losing him, she added, “I never would have believed my son would have died of an overdose.” It wasn’t just what she calls “the denial factor”; she and other parents simply weren’t educated on the dangers.

In response, she established the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse, and for the past eight years has been a public speaker, educator and advocate for safety reforms.

“I know I can’t save the world,” Rovero said, “but I can save some people; some people listen.”