MOREHEAD, Ky. — Late in the morning last New Year's Day, Sam and Lynn Kissick received a devastating phone call that would tear their lives apart.
The caller informed them their 22-year-old daughter, Savannah, was being rushed by ambulance to the St. Claire Regional Medical Center in Morehead, Ky. She had long battled drug addiction, but it looked like this time, Savannah had overdosed on a combination of painkillers and sedatives while celebrating New Year's Eve.
After racing to the emergency room to be by Savannah's side, her parents were met by a physician with grim news. "I'm sorry, Mr. And Mrs. Kissick, but she didn't make it," he said.
Savannah had just become the latest fatality linked to prescription drug abuse, a fast-growing problem that killed more than 8,500 Americans in 2005, according to the latest available statistics from the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says nearly 7 million Americans currently abuse prescription drugs, noting that is "more than the number who are abusing cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, ecstasy and inhalants combined." The DEA also reports that "opioid painkillers now cause more overdose deaths than cocaine and heroin combined."
"Something needs to be done, because it's killing our kids every day." said Lynn Kissick. "People need to stand up and take notice. Our kids are dying. They're dying because of these drugs."
A regional ‘epidemic’
While the problem exists in every state in the country, officials said prescription drug abuse is particularly acute in the cities and rural areas of Eastern Kentucky.
Last year alone, at least 485 people died in Kentucky from prescription drug overdoses, according to the state's Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Medical Examiners' records indicate the drugs most commonly found in those death cases were methadone, the painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone, alprazolam (Xanax), morphine, diazepam (Valium) and fentanyl.
"It's an epidemic and I'm afraid we're losing a whole generation," said Beth Lewis Maze, the Chief Circuit Judge for the 21st Judicial Circuit in Kentucky. "These pain medications are so highly addictive that these young people are digging themselves a very deep hole."
In the region's newly formed drug court, Maze sees the ravages of prescription drug abuse at all levels of society. "I see good kids from good families, doctors, lawyers, teachers," she said.
Greenup County Coroner Neil Wright calls prescription drug abuse "public enemy number one." Half of the 50 deaths he logged last year were drug related, and "85 to 90 percent" of those calls involved prescription pill overdoses. "It affects everybody. I don't care, rich, poor, educated or non-educated, it affects everybody."
Down the street, Greenup County Sheriff Keith Cooper dug through the many evidence bags his deputies have filled with prescription pill bottles and cash seized during drug arrests.
"We are drowning in a sea of prescription medication," said Cooper, who complained about the skyrocketing number of crimes committed by addicts searching for money to buy painkillers.
"It affects, quite literally, every kind, every type of crime that we have, the burglaries, the thefts, the accidents, the domestic disputes between families. It's breaking families up."
In neighboring Rowan County, where Savannah Kissick died, Chief Deputy Sheriff Roger Holbrook was arrested recently on federal charges that he had conspired to distribute oxycodone.
Crowded rehabilitation clinics
Pastor Wayne Ross runs the Shepherd’s Shelter adult drug and alcohol treatment center in Mount Sterling, Ky. His 50 available beds are filled with residents struggling to recover from drug addiction, almost all of them from prescription pill habits.
Savannah Kissick was one of his clients, and she had graduated from the recovery program. Her return to drug abuse and her death from an overdose shook Ross and the clinic staff members who had worked hard for her success.
"I cried, it breaks my heart," said Ross, who officiated at Savannah's funeral. "She's not the only one. We've been directly involved with five different people who have OD'd. Three of the funerals I did, myself, as a minister. It just breaks my heart."
Kay Fultz, 36, is also from Morehead, Ky. and is currently a resident of the Shepherd’s Shelter who said that at the height of her addiction, she was taking as many as 50 oxycodone pain pills a day and was dealing drugs to support her own habit.
"It just starts out as a party drug, you know, every now and then," Fultz said. "Once you start doing it every day, I mean it just takes compete control of your life."
Finding a prescription drug supply was easy for Fultz. "It's very simple to get. It's everywhere," she said. But once addicted, the costs are severe. "I've lost everything. I've lost everything and it's so easy to do."
During a recent classroom session at his clinic, Ross asked the residents where they bought their prescription drugs. Every person in the room had either traveled to Florida to obtain the medications, or had purchased drugs from someone else who had bought prescription painkillers there.
Florida has become notorious as a destination for addicts and drug dealers from around the southeastern United States. They are drawn to the many pain clinics in Florida, some of which dispense hundreds of painkillers at a time after only a cursory medical exam.
"You can go down there and within 24 hours have everything you need," said Fultz, who added that the medical exam she was given at a Florida pain clinic, where she pretended to suffer from pain, was not at all professional.
"I mean, they look at your MRI, ask you how you are feeling — ‘I'm feeling pretty bad’ — and you leave there with pills."
Sam Kissick, Savannah’s father, believes the drugs that killed his daughter came from Florida.
"From where I'm sitting, it looks like they're handing it out like candy on Halloween," he said. "Anybody that goes down there can come back with carloads of pills, and then they're dumped out on our streets."
To addicts in Kentucky, Florida is “like the promised land,” said Cooper, the Greenup County sheriff.
Local police, federal agents and medical officials in Florida are targeting illicit prescription drug sales. The state legislature recently passed, and Gov. Charlie Crist signed, a law to regulate and monitor pain clinics, although the procedure won't be fully implemented until late next year.
Kentucky and most other states already have such monitoring laws in place, making it much more difficult for addicts and dealers to buy large amounts of prescription medication by going from clinic to clinic – a common practice in Florida.
Families left behind
Karen Shay, a dentist in Morehead, Ky., also knows too well the cost and pain of prescription drug abuse. Two years ago, her 19-year-old daughter, Sarah, died from an overdose after partying with friends, who dropped her body off at a hospital and drove away.
Sarah Shay and Savannah Kissick had been childhood friends.
"We have two young ladies that were beautiful, talented and intelligent, had the world by the tail, could have done anything and they're gone,” Shay said. “They're gone."
In her work, Shay also sees the desperation of drug addicts, some of whom have visited her office seeking pain medication for fake dental problems. Because of Kentucky's prescription monitoring law, Shay is able to run computer checks on patients she suspects of doctor-shopping for painkillers and turns many of them away.
"If [the painkillers are] taken the way they're supposed to be, it's a very powerful, helpful drug. But when they're not taken the way they're supposed to, then it becomes a killer," she said. "It's amazing when you look in the paper, how many people have died from drug abuse. "
During a recent visit to the cemetery where Sarah is interred, Shay cleared away the dying flower petals and placed a colorful pinwheel below her daughter's crypt. Looking upward to the plaque showing Sarah's name and picture, she quietly spoke the words, "Hi, Baby," then bowed her head.
"When you lose somebody like that, it puts a hole in your heart that nothing else will ever fill," she said.
For the Kissicks, whose loss is more recent and raw, anger mingles with grief.
"It's time that people were held accountable for what's happening. I think it's time that someone was held responsible,” Lynn Kissick said.
The parents want to raise awareness about the problem so that others don’t have to endure their pain.
"The drugs, they don't discriminate and it can happen to anybody," said Sam Kissick. "You may never have any idea that your child is exploring or fooling with prescription drugs at all, until they've already gone too far with it."
Sitting at their dining room table recently, Savannah's parents sorted through colorful photographs of their daughter.
"She had a beautiful smile," said Lynn. In a quiet voice, Sam agreed, "That she did."