Unique Drug Program In Columbus Aims To Help Heroin Users Beat Addiction

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The exploding use of opiate drugs, including heroin, is swamping drug rehab centers across central Ohio. There just aren't enough beds for all the drug abusers who want to kick their habit.  In Columbus, a unique program is helping them get that monkey off their back. 

It's the horror heroin addicts want to avoid at any cost: withdrawal.  Addicts go through extreme emotional and physical pain, including sweating, chills, headaches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.  The usual way to keep that monster at bay is by using more dope, prolonging the ugly cycle that keeps addicts trapped. 

20-year-old Chad Ryan financed his heroin habit by committing thefts, passing bad checks and stealing other people's identities.  "I was arrested six months ago,” Chad recalls.   “Something went off in my head (that) this isn't working anymore.”

Rather than just throwing him back in jail, the Franklin County Common Pleas Court put Chad in an innovative rehab program that uses a drug called Vivitrol.   It is a once-a-month injection that costs roughly a $1000 a shot.

Vivitrol's been used for years to treat alcohol dependence.

“They will come back the first month after the first injection and say, ‘I haven't thought about heroin, I haven't thought about Percocet’,” explains Pete English, Registered Nurse at Southeast Inc.

Assistant Clinical Director Scott Grim says the drug is sometimes hard on patients’ liver, but it’s easier on the body than returning to heroin use.

Vivitrol works by blocking the effects of opiates on the pleasure receptors of the brain.  Simply put, Vivitrol keeps the addict from getting high if he tries to use again.

"The patient doesn't get a buzz off of it.  It has no street value. They can't abuse it at all,” says Clinical Pharmacist Michelle Maguire.

After using Vivitrol, Chad says he hasn’t relapsed.  The 21st of November will mark seven months completely clean.

Common Pleas Court judges - including Judge Stephen McIntosh - are seeing success by putting drug offenders in the Vivitrol program.  One offender has been 90 days sober so far, but the judge cautioned him.  “Vivatrol is not going to make you successful in your recovery.   You're going to do that.”

Recovery experts say simply not using drugs is not enough.

“If you don't combine counseling, if you don't combine community supports, if you don't help educate the family about what the person's going thru, even with medication-assisted treatment, you can have very poor outcomes,” says Grims.

State health officials are providing some funding for Vivitrol therapy.   Some recovering addicts who don't have health insurance can get Medicaid help. In some cases the pharmaceutical companies will provide Vivitrol free of charge.

There are currently three drug and alcohol recovery centers in Columbus offering the program.