Mother sees hope amid opioid crisis

6/12/2017, 7:15 a.m.
Five years ago, Emily Walden had never heard of the powerful prescription opioid Opana ER. Today, she is one of ...

— Five years ago, Emily Walden had never heard of the powerful prescription opioid Opana ER. Today, she is one of its biggest critics, and she sees the Food and Drug Administration's request this week that drugmaker Endo Pharmaceuticals pull the painkiller off the market as a sign of hope.

"I was not aware of the prescription drug epidemic until it appeared on my front door and entered my house," the Louisville, Kentucky, resident told an FDA advisory committee in March. "I was forced to wake up and confront this assault on my family head on. "

'I was forced to wake up'

Walden says her son, TJ, began abusing drugs about 10 years ago, when he was 17. He was at a party when friends offered him the prescription narcotic OxyContin. "I know that within several weeks, things started to fall apart, and he quickly moved to Opana," she said. "These drugs were readily available."

Her intuition told her something was wrong. She had him tested for drugs, and he passed -- but it didn't test for opiates.

Things weren't adding up. TJ wasn't the same kid. "It wasn't long after that, he lied to me about something stupid, but I pushed it and kept pushing it, and then he confessed to me what was going on," Walden said.

She did everything she could to help him. She sent him to rehab, but he kept being pulled back in. "He told me, 'I don't want to die from this,' " she said.

At 18, he knew that he wanted to join the National Guard. "He loved it. That's what he wanted his entire life. He was a member of the Kentucky National Guard. His life's dream was to serve in the military." But despite getting to fulfill his dream, he continued to battle addiction.

He seemed to be back on track after a stay in rehab, but the 30-day program proved to not be enough, according to Walden. She believes TJ wasn't chasing the high, but rather he was trying to manage the withdrawal. In July 2012, at the age of 21, it proved to be too much: He died of an overdose of Opana ER.

Walden shared TJ's story with the FDA committee. "He loved his country, and his country failed him. He should not have had access to this very dangerous and highly addictive drug. Too many mothers have gotten a knock on their door saying their child will never come home again. Too many children have had their lives cut short, families destroyed, communities left in ruins."

America's crisis

America's opioid epidemic is a major health crisis. Overdoses of any drug are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, killing more people than guns or car accidents. Opioids were involved in over 33,000 deaths in 2015, about half of them due to prescription drugs such as Opana ER, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

And prescription drug misuse is frequently a precursor to heroin, the CDC says. In fact, three out of four recent heroin users started with prescription drugs.