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Spring 2023 - Safety

Opioid Addiction: A Patient’s Perspective

LORI LEWIS knows all too well that if a mother’s love could cure addiction, her son Ryan would be alive today. He was just 23 years old when he died of a drug overdose on July 10, 2014.

Lori Lewis and her son Ryan
Lori Lewis, whose son Ryan died from an overdose of opioids, has become an advocate for opioid addiction awareness.

LORI LEWIS knows all too well that if a mother’s love could cure addiction, her son Ryan would be alive today. He was just 23 years old when he died of a drug overdose on July 10, 2014. He was a gifted artist and musician whose descent into addiction began with a prescription for Vicodin.

Lori, who is a registered nurse, was prescribed Vicodin after the first of two back surgeries. “About a year after the first surgery, I began to have back pain again and decided to take the medication that was left over,” explained Lori. “When I went in the medicine cabinet, the pills looked different, and I discovered the prescription had been replaced with Tylenol capsules. That’s when I suspected something was wrong.”

Lori and her husband called a family meeting with all four of their children, and their son Ryan eventually confessed that he had taken the Vicodin. As parents, they were naturally alarmed, but still unaware of how serious a potential opioid addiction could be. “The opioid epidemic hadn’t fully hit, and we, along with many doctors and nurses, still thought they were safe,” says Lori. Around the same time, I discovered Ryan had also taken some Adderall that had been prescribed for his brother’s attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.”

For the Lewis family, this was the beginning of a long battle with addiction that would eventually cost their son his life.

Over time, Lori says her once free-spirited son became increasingly moody and irritable, and they worried about his mental health. One day, Ryan’s girlfriend called Lori at work to report that Ryan was talking about suicide. “I took him to the emergency room where a blood test revealed opioids and benzos, which are prescribed for anxiety,” says Lori.

Over the next few months, Lori and her husband saw a number of other red flags that they now share with other families as a warning sign. Ryan was losing weight. He was moody and often had headaches, nausea and vomiting and cold sweats. Spoons in the home were disappearing. Valuables began disappearing, including a cell phone, jewelry, a coin collection and a camera. Ryan complained of severe muscle and bone aches and intense cramping in his limbs. He wore long-sleeved shirts and jeans even in hot weather. And, he lost many old friends and had many new friends.

At that time, Ryan was often sick in the morning but would recover in the afternoon. Lori says she knows now that these were symptoms of opioid withdrawal.

Over a two-year period, Ryan was admitted to residential treatment four times. During one stay, he finally admitted that his opioid addiction had shifted from pills to heroin. In a pursuit to break free from his addiction, Ryan continued to spend time in and out of treatment centers. After a third stay in residential treatment, it looked like he might have finally turned a corner by remaining drug-free for five months. Then one night, his girlfriend sent Lori a picture of Ryan asking if he looked normal. “He was nodding off on her sofa with his head arched back, mouth open and eyes half closed,” says Lori. “That’s when we picked him up and got him into treatment for the fourth and last time.”

After another 28-day stay, Ryan was sent to recover in a sober house with a strict policy against medication-assisted treatment. That meant Ryan couldn’t take Suboxone, a medication he desperately needed to reduce cravings and prevent relapses. “I believe it was that policy that led to the phone call we got three days later informing us that Ryan had died of an overdose in his room,” says Lori.

Before that fatal overdose, Lori says Ryan survived two other overdoses. As a nurse, Lori knew that opioids cause drowsiness and can slow or even stop someone from breathing. Fortunately, she says, there is a medication that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose called naloxone (generic for Narcan). “It begins to work within two minutes. It’s safe, easy to use and state laws make Narcan available without a prescription,” explains Lori. “Research shows that every 227 doses of naloxone distributed saves one life.”

Today, Lori serves as an advocate for opioid addiction awareness and uses every opportunity to tell her son’s story and, hopefully, save a life. “Ryan’s life has been cut short forever,” laments Lori. “My hope is that we can save other lives with education and awareness, proper disposal of unused medication, greater access to naloxone and more compassionate, evidence-based treatment.”

Trudie Mitschang
Trudie Mitschang is a contributing writer for BioSupply Trends Quarterly magazine.