DANVILLE (KPIX 5) -- With Californians now leading the nation in opioid-related deaths, a Bay Area mother and son are courageously putting a face on this terrible addiction. To get the word out, they opened their home and hearts in hopes others can heed their warnings.
Inside a beautiful home in the affluent San Ramon Valley, Debora Killeen and her 25-year-old son, Kent, flip through old photographs when the young man was just a little boy. They both remember a time before the powerful painkillers took over, and turned their lives upside down.
"Never in a million years did I ever think I would have a child that would have the disease of addiction," said Debora.
At age 11, Kent was riding his bike and was hit by a car.
His doctor prescribed the young boy a bottle full of Vicodin, a trade name for the narcotic which combines the opioid hydrocodone with acetaminophen.
"11 ... yeah, 11 years old and that's when I first experienced opioids or any kind of opiates and I just fell in love immediately," remembered Kent.
The feeling that these drugs gave the 11-year-old proved irresistible. "Just a warm hug ... ahhhhh ... just indescribable," he explained .
From Vicodin, Norco (also hydrocodone-based), then by tenth grade OxyContin (oxycodone), Kent eventually turned to heroin. Most young people who become addicted to prescription painkillers turn to heroin, according to reasearchers.
"Doctors and dentists don't really mind giving young people lots of painkillers, unfortunately. But they don't like giving healthy-looking 25-year-olds a large quantity on a monthly basis," said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, addiction specialist and Executive Director for Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. The group was formed about five years ago, when a group of doctors recognized that the doctors were overprescribing pain medicine.
They noticed that when young people are cut off from a legitimate prescription, these young people turn to other more dangerous sources."Young people who are getting addicted are turning to the black market," said Kolodny.
"Sometimes if they can't get prescriptions for them, they'll buy pills on the street and or turn to heroin." explained Dr. Patil Armenian, ER and medical toxicologist at the UCSF Fresno Medical Education Program.
"By the time I was 19, it was just out of control," said Kent. "It was a problem."
Kent Killeen is far from alone. Millions of Americans are now known to be addicted to prescription painkillers.
"This is bigger than any drug epidemic that we've seen to date, " said Dr. Hallam Gugelmann, ER doctor at California Pacific Medical Center's St. Luke's campus and medical toxicologist at University of California, San Francisco and the Poison Control Center.
"This is the worst drug addiction epidemic in United States history," said Kolodny. "It's been caused by overexposing the U.S. population to prescription opioids."
April Rovero's son passed away from an accidental overdose of prescription pills that he was prescribed by a doctor. She later founded and is now Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse.
"They are prescribed by a doctor and they're perceived to be less harmful," said Rovero. The doctor who treated her son was convicted of second-degree murder for recklessly prescribing drugs to patients.
"I trusted the professionals to make the right decisions," sighed Debora Killeen.
To feed his habit, Kent stole from his family, and sold what he could, Debora said. She learned how to vacuum while holding her purse.
She knew her son was suffering from an addiction, a terrible disease. "They don't want to be hurting you. They don't want to steal from you. They don't want to make you sad," Debora said.
Kent even turned to counterfeit drugs where addicts don't know what they are buying..
"That person will be driven to unspeakable things to get the medication," explained Gugelmann. "They will buy them on the street, they will try to buy them online."
Kent learned that with a just a click, and credit card, he could buy counterfeit drugs online. "You don't even have to go to the dark web, you can Google it and buy it, literally," he said.
More Californians die from an opioid-related overdose - 4,500 deaths in 2014 - than from being in a car crash. Almost 50% percent more.
In the past decade, the Bay Area has seen a breathtaking surge in opioid-related fatalities, non-fatal ER admissions and non-fatal hospitalizations; through 2014, a 48% increase.
"Who would have thought it was more dangerous to stand in front of a medicine cabinet than behind the wheel of a car?" exclaimed Contra Costa County Public Health Director Dan Pedicured.
Kent's former girlfriend overdosed. He gave her Narcan or naloxone, an antidote to opioid overdoses.
"My low was my ex-girlfriend dying in my arms ... and me pretty much resuscitating her and having to give her Narcan and pretty much bringing her back to life," said Kent. "Watch her from turning blue, purple, green, white and pale and coming back to life, literally from not breathing and no heartbeat. It was really scary."
Later his best friend overdosed and died. Kent was devastated.
"I've spent hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands of days playing Russian Roulette over and over again. I don't know why I've been so lucky, but I just have." he explained.
Kent is lucky. He was arrested and thrown in jail.
"It's horrible to think that you're excited about your child going to jail, but for me, jail sailed my son's life." said Debora. She added it got him off street drugs, and gave him a moment of clarity.
Kent sought treatment with methadone, is recovering, and working full-time.
He participated at a memorial in Walnut Creek to remember those lost to a drug overdose. The event - International Overdose Awareness Day - aims to reduced the stigma of a drug-related death. Rovero and her group helped put together the event which featured hundreds of names, nd dozens of faces - all victims of a drug overdose.
"It's killing people, literally killing people and their families," said Kent.
Debora says the problem is so great in the San Ramon, Alamo and Danville area that she started a support group for families called the Nar-Anon Family Group Danville.
Kent and Debora want everyone to know the epidemic is in all communities. "It doesn't matter what color you are, how much money you have, what house you live in, it is here." Debora stated.
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