For Lea Gray, procuring pills was never a problem.
Gray grew up in Hollis, a southwest Oklahoma town only a few miles north of the Texas border. She was born with congenital foot and hip problems. She had eight surgeries before the age of 3 and couldn’t walk until the age of 6. She’s been in pain for as long as she can remember.
Gray was 15 years old when a sympathetic relative gave her a 7.5-milligram Lortab, a prescription painkiller containing hydrocodone and acetaminophen.
One was all it took.
“It was just like just a wave from my head to my feet. All of a sudden, it was just euphoria. I felt good, and I just thought that I could conquer the world at that very second,” recalled Gray, now 31.
“From that day on, I never went another day without taking them.”
Gray got her own prescriptions from local doctors. She took Lortabs straight through her pregnancy and childbirth at age 19. She built up a tolerance to the opiate drug, and her dosage gradually increased.
At times, she took oxycodone, another powerful opiate, on top of the hydrocodone. She went through a spell when she and her friends were pulverizing oxycodone pills and shooting them up.
A single Lortab prescription was not nearly enough to feed her habit. She began doctor-shopping – getting several physicians to write her prescriptions and filling them at different pharmacies. She used doctors and pharmacies in different towns to avoid detection.
“Because I had physical disabilities, I could go to the doctor anywhere, and they’d give me as many as I wanted. I didn’t just go to one doctor. I went to four or five,” she said.
“When you’re an addict, it’s not hard to convince somebody that you lost your prescription, or you hurt too bad and you had to take them, or whatever,” she said. “I didn’t have to work too hard.”
By late 2007, she was routinely taking about 300 milligrams of hydrocodone a day – enough “to kill a horse,” she said. But that much didn’t even get her high any more. All it did was keep her from becoming “dope sick” by warding off withdrawal symptoms.
In 2006, Oklahoma expanded its Prescription Monitoring Program to include hydrocodone combo medications like Lortab. The PMP system lets doctors check online to determine if their patients are filling multiple prescriptions from different doctors.
Gray said her doctors never bothered to check.
“They had it then, but nobody ever used it,” she said.
Many physicians still aren’t using it today. Last year, the PMP was checked only once for every eight narcotic prescriptions filled by Oklahoma pharmacies. Medical associations have successfully headed off legislative proposals to make PMP use mandatory, arguing that routine use would be too time-consuming and expensive for doctors.
Gray’s 11-year pill-popping spree came to an end in December 2007. She ran out of Lortabs about two weeks ahead of schedule and went three days without
them. When she couldn’t take it any more, she visited an out-of-town doctor and said someone had stolen her pills from her purse. The doctor wrote a new prescription, along with a second script for codeine cough syrup because Gray had a cough.
Gray went straight to the pharmacy and filled the prescriptions. When she got back in her car, she swallowed seven 10-milligram Lortabs and washed them down with the cough syrup.
She doesn’t remember much after that. Someone apparently called authorities after seeing her swerve her car into a ditch. She was stopped by a Highway Patrol officer, who cited her for driving under the influence of drugs.
It was her third DUID charge.
“It was a felony,” she said. “I was going to go to prison, and I was going to lose my child. I had burned so many bridges that nobody would get me out of jail. My parents had my child, and they wouldn’t come get me, and they didn’t want me to see my kid.
“And they were right. I didn’t need to be around him. I was a danger to him.”
Instead of prison, Gray wound up in drug court. She got clean in rehab and began seeing an addiction medicine specialist in Oklahoma City, Dr. Hal Vorse. He put her on Suboxone, a medication that prevents opiate addicts from experiencing withdrawal and eliminates the cravings that torment many recovering drug users.
Suboxone also helps subdue Gray’s chronic pain. She said she might wind up taking it for the rest of her life. But at least she’ll be sober.
It’s been more than six years since Gray experienced her moment of truth. Her life is on track now. She’s working as a medical coder at Harmon Memorial Hospital in Hollis. Her son is 12 now, and she’s trying to make up for lost time as a parent.
Gray said she doesn’t hold her doctors responsible for her excessive drug use a decade ago. She thinks she would have become an addict no matter what.
But she is convinced that many Oklahoma physicians are not fully aware of the addictive potential and overdose risk of the drugs they are prescribing. She said steps should be taken to provide more physician training in addiction medicine.
“You can’t put all the weight on them,” she said. “I’m just saying, if we educated them a little more, it might save a few lives. Or save a few children from having to go through what my son went through. Because I’ll never be able to repay that.”
Warren Vieth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org