A Fatal First: From Athlete to Addict, Examining the Opioid Crisis

May 17, 2017 11:26 PM

(ABC 6 NEWS) – For the last few years, it’s been a huge topic all across the nation. Whether it’s been a recent death or new steps to fight the epidemic, opioid overdose deaths seem to never leave the forefront.

The most recent Minnesota numbers speak for themselves. In 2015, more than half of the drug-related deaths were attributed to prescription painkillers.


Fast forward now to 2017 where officials continue to treat the problem.

For privacy reasons, we are calling Joe by his first name only. It was no surprise to find him on the mat, competing and becoming a Minnesota State Champion.

 “After that, I went onto college to wrestle at Ohio University, division one,” said Joe.

At Ohio University, Joe didn’t last long. He ended up coming back to Minnesota and wrestle for Rochester Community and Technical College. But like many athletes, he hurt his knee and needed surgery.

“It was six weeks and I was prescribed some Percocet’s and then after that, I had another shoulder surgery and that one was pretty severe. I tore my rotator cuff. With that surgery, I was prescribed even stronger medication and it just took off from there,” added Joe.

Joe was hooked. Hooked on painkillers that numbed life’s pain and when the medication ran out, he took a turn for the worse.

“My addiction increased to smoking heroin and started buying off the streets and my life went out of control with that,” says Joe.

Heroin was cheaper and he would get the same result. At 21-years-old, twice, he overdosed and came close to dying. He nearly became the next body for testing at the Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner’s Office.

“Unfortunately more and more of our cases involve very extensive toxicology and just the nature and process of that testing takes time,” said Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ross Reichard.

Dr. Reichard says his office is seeing more cases of drug overdose deaths.

“I think its common knowledge now that across the United States there is really a drug overdose epidemic,” says Reichard. “A number of years ago now for the first time the number of accidental deaths in the United States from car accidents were superseded by accidental deaths from drug overdoses so it’s a real public health issue.”

As the opioid epidemic continues to sweep through southeast Minnesota, the medical community is talking about the problem.

“We are seeing patients who are coming through our offices every day who have gotten hooked on these drugs,” said Dr. Terry Schneekloth.

Dr. Schneekloth specializes in addiction of pain psychiatry. He says many patients like Joe shift from painkillers to heroin.

“This is worse than the heroin epidemic in the past, the methamphetamine epidemic, crack cocaine epidemic, so the numbers of people dying is huge,” added Dr. Schneekloth.

Dr. Schneekloth was part of a community discussion where medical leaders talked not only about the social and financial costs but also ways to tackle the problem.

“If you get the medical community talking about it, physicians, other health care providers will begin to monitor this when patients are coming through, including primary care clinics for their appointments, directing people to addiction services to get help,” said Schneekloth.

“For athletes especially prescription painkillers are an everyday thing,” added Joe. “It’s crazy how many people are overdosing these days but we still go back to it every day. It’s got that strong of a pull on us.”

Joe knows firsthand, he recently lost a good friend who overdosed on heroin. His funeral was the day after ABC 6 News interviewed Joe.

“I think it’s the daily intake of it, you begin to build a tolerance to it. If somebody’s not watching you, I was 21 years old at the time, I didn’t feel like I needed someone to help me take the medication,” added Joe.

Years later he’s now getting help, recovering at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge in Rochester. He hopes by sharing his story it will help others suffering.

“I’m young still, I’m 23-years-old. It’s kind of insane to me that I was 21-years-old and overdosing on drugs. I’m 23 now and I’m happy again,” said Joe.


Karsen Forsman

Copyright 2017 - KAAL-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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