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A Family Tragedy: The Personal Cost of Heroin Addiction
02/18/2014   Reported By: Susan Sharon

There's been a renewed focus recently on heroin deaths in Maine and other states, against the ever-present backdrop of opiate addiction. Last year the number of heroin deaths in Maine spiked four-fold from the year before, to 28. And state officials expect the figure to rise again this year. One of the recent victims of heroin's powerful undertow is Brendan Keating. Susan Sharon has his story.

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The Personal Cost of Heroin Addiction
Originally Aired: 2/18/2014 5:30 PM

In her psychiatric office in Brunswick, Dr. Lynn Ouellette keeps a candle burning in memory of her 22-year-old son, Brendan.

"He was a very exuberant, kind of fun-loving kid. Big in the world," she says. "From very early on he was kind of the spirited, joker, clown in the family. He was gifted with doing things with his hands. He used to take apart a lot of things. Took off the door. Took apart all the motors in the house. He used to take apart all the fans, so I'd find skeletons of fans and I had to put a stop to it when I picked up my electric mixer one day and it had no motor in it. But he was actually making other things with the motors."

But while he was good with his hands and also very athletic, Brendan struggled academically. In junior high he was diagnosed with a learning disability and attention deficit disorder, which Ouellette says was difficult for him because his twin brother is a gifted student. Brendan also struggled with, and was treated for, depression.

High school was hard. But Brendan pressed ahead, taking vocational courses and eventually enrolling in masonry school after graduation. All the while, though, Brendan was using drugs. Ouellette says it started in high school.

"You know, I never really knew quite what it was, but I knew at one point that he was using marijuana and he may have been dealing," she says, "And at that point, I actually turned him into the police, though he never knew that, because I was trying to kind of stop the course of something bad happening."

Brendan enrolled in the first of several drug treatment programs. But a few years ago, his drug use worsened.  He enrolled in a methadone maintenance program in Portland to address an addiction to opiates. Ouellette says that helped him for a while. Then he relapsed.

"He was doing things that addicts often do: He was stealing money from us and those kinds of things, and he had a couple of car accidents and it got really got scary and he looked really desperate," she says. "And I was very worried about him. He sometimes would talk about suicide. And I was scared about him hurting himself, scared about him hurting someone else.  And at one point I just sat down with him and said, 'You can either go to treatment or I'm going to turn you into the police. And here's the possible treatments and you can choose.' And he did choose."

Brendan chose a six-week-long, in-patient drug treatment facilitiy in Arizona. That was followed by a 90-day residential treatment in California. Ouellette says for awhile, Brendan seemed OK. He even started going to the gym and seeing a psychiatrist. And then, once again, he relapsed.

"Around Thanksgiving time when my other children were home he had an episode where he looked really sedated one day, and my daughter and I both confronted him," she says. "And he just bascially said, 'Look I didn't get enough sleep. I'm OK. And you know, you guys are crazy.'"

But it was only a short time later, on Dec. 13, that Ouellette's worst fears came true. Her husband, also a physician, went down to the basement and found Brendan unresponsive and breathing strangely. He'd accidentally overdosed on a combination of heroin and sleeping pills. Just shy of his 23rd birthday, Brendan later died at the hospital.

"You know, there is so much stigma about this. And there's so much judgment," Ouellette says. "But people need to know that addicts are from families. They're real people. They're people who are struggling courageously with something that's a disease, and families are struggling with them. And I would have done anything to save my son's life. And that's true for so many other people. And they're not throw-away lives."

Ouellette says she and her husband still ask themselves: What if they'd found Brendan sooner? What if they'd had the overdose antidote Narcan in the house? Maine lawmakers are considering a bill that would make Narcan more widely available to first responders and to family members of addicts, something the U.S. drug czar is also promoting nationwide as a way to curb opiate-related deaths.

But the LePage administration is concerned about adding costs to the state's Medicaid program, and about interfering with emergency medicine protocols. In response, the bill's sponsor is offering an amendment that makes funding for Narcan kits the responsibility of Maine cities and towns, possibly through grants.

With a price tag of less than $50 a kit, Lynn Ouellette is convinced it's a small price to pay to save someone's life.


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