Sara Mach struggles to talk about the morning she overdosed and died, not because the topic is too emotional, but because of the damage inflicted from her brief encounter with death.
Because of the overdose, Mach lost most of her hearing. She has brain damage and suffers from memory loss. She’s 22.
Mach got her prescriptions from doctors who asked few questions as they supplied her with the drugs she wanted to get high.
She started taking the medicines for legitimate reasons, including a ruptured disc in her back. But it didn’t take long for the drugs to grab hold.
In late 2010, Mach was prescribed Lortab, which includes hydrocodone, a powerful painkiller. She was addicted and soon became a doctor shopper, she said.
“I’d do anything for Lortab or Xanax,” she said.
Only one doctor refused to prescribe to her anymore.
“He said, ‘no more,’” she said.
But even that doctor said nothing about how she could get help. He just told her he would no longer be her supplier.
Among those she visited was an Oklahoma City psychiatrist, Dr. Amar Bhandary.
Today, Bhandary lives at Butner Low, a federal prison in North Carolina, dubbed one of America’s “cushiest” lockups by Forbes magazine. The prison also houses Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff and former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.
During an eight-day trial in April 2013, Bhandary faced 53 counts of illegal distribution of controlled substances. Federal prosecutors accused Bhandary of prescribing powerful painkillers and anxiety drugs without legitimate medical purpose to eight people. Five of them died of drug toxicity from the prescriptions: Fontella Hurlbut, Jeff Tate, Terry Collins, Jimmy D. Stuckey, and Lynn Elliot, federal court records show.
The jury was unable to reach a verdict in that case, but Bhandary later pleaded guilty to health care fraud and was sentenced to 30 months.
Daniel Gamino, a health care attorney who represented Bhandary before the medical board, said Bhandary was a responsible doctor who monitored his patients closely.
“The doctor cannot control the patient when the patient walks out the door … and I don’t think it’s fair if the patient does not follow the doctor’s instructions or decides to trade some of those medications for some of his neighbor’s, or decides to drink alcohol with it, or decides to double up or triple up on his prescription,” Gamino said.
When Mach talks about her former doctors, her comments come haltingly. She sometimes struggles to verbalize what she wants to say. Her lips move, but words don’t come out.
In those moments, she looks to her boyfriend of four years, Roy Ingram, for help. Ingram and Mach, who live in an Edmond apartment, take care of each other.
Ingram, 33, lost an eye in his early 20s. Addicted to methamphetamine, he’d touched his eye, not realizing the potent drug was on his fingertip and would cause lasting damage.
She sometimes reads for him. He sometimes speaks for her.
This is Mach’s second chance, and she is thankful.
She died Nov. 29, 2012.
The day before, she had taken at least six Lortabs and an unknown number of Xanax.
She went to bed about 10:30 p.m. When her boyfriend went to sleep, she was snoring next to him.
The couple’s cat, Prada, woke Ingram up about 4:30 a.m. He noticed Mach was quieter than usual. He put his ear to her mouth and realized she wasn’t breathing.
Panicked, he turned on the light. Her lips were blue.
He called 911 and began chest compressions. The paramedics came, and after 10 minutes, revived her.
Doctors told Ingram and Mach’s family that she might not make it. There was talk at one point of “pulling the plug,” Ingram said.
Mach remembers a dream she had while unconscious. She saw her mother.
“Sara, do you really want it to turn out like this?” she remembered her mother saying. In 2007, when Mach was only 15, her mother overdosed on prescription drugs.
Ingram and Mach say drug users aren’t blameless for Oklahoma’s prescription drug epidemic, but argue that doctors should take a more active approach in monitoring their patients, such as giving drug tests and checking the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring program, an online database accessible to healthcare professionals who write prescriptions.
Mach has no interest in taking any of the drugs she once abused. She ranks her pain level at about a nine on a 10-point scale, and she still takes drugs for her pain. Her doctor worries that she might abuse them, and Mach wants to learn more about alternatives, like Subutex or Suboxone, which are less easily abused and often prescribed to recovering addicts for pain management.
Mach lives each day hoping to regain her speech and the ability to walk comfortably. The overdose left her left ankle turned inward, and it’s hard for her to walk long distances.
Mach hopes that other people having problems with prescription drugs will read her story and understand the consequences of these drugs.
“Get help, immediately,” she said. “Don’t let the feeling of the pills kill you.”