Hard pill to swallow

Published 12:24 pm Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Shelby County Coroner Diana Hawkins has tried to find a pattern to help curb the county’s growing drug overdose problem, but to no avail.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” Hawkins said. “It feels like such a waste.”

In just five years, the number of accidental drug overdoses has steadily increased from 10 in 2004 to 41 in 2008. The high came in 2007, with 53 confirmed accidental overdoses.

But while many counties across the nation are suffering from illegal street narcotics overdoses, that’s not happening here. In Shelby County, it’s prescription medications that are killing people.

“We don’t have the problems with drugs like crack and meth that some other counties do,” Hawkins said.

Of the confirmed 160 overdoses from Jan 1, 2004-May 11, 2009, most were caused by drugs such as hydrocodone, morphine, Dilaudid, Xanax, Phenergan, dyphenhydramine, methadone, Oxycontin, Ambien, cocaine and alcohol, or a mixture of drugs and alcohol.

And while many other counties’ poor and uneducated are dying of overdoses, Hawkins said Shelby County’s affluent citizens have the money to buy the expensive prescription medications, and they are the ones dying.

Of the 160 who have died in the five-year span, 151 have been white, six black and three Hispanic.

Just last year, all 41 people who overdosed in the county were white.

Gender has also failed to be a determining factor, as more men overdosed than women in 2004, 2006 and 2007, but more women overdosed last year and so far this year. There were an equal number of overdoses for men and women in 2005.

Hawkins also said location does not play a determining factor, as there have been as few as six cities with overdoses in 2004 to as many as 14 in 2008.

But it’s the ages of the people overdosing that has Hawkins concerned the most.

In 2004, the youngest person to overdose was 22. That age dropped to 21 in 2005, then to 20 in 2006, before hitting an alarming low of 16 in 2007.

The youngest person to overdose last year was 18, while the youngest so far this year was 27.

Because of this, Hawkins spends many hours speaking with young people about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

“We’re trying to get the word out to the younger kids,” Hawkins said. “One of the main reasons I got into this is because when I first came in, there were so many young people dying.”

However, older people are struggling with prescription drug abuse, as well.

The oldest person to overdose in 2004 was 81, while the oldest person was 63 in 2005 and 2006, 77 in 2007, 58 in 2008 and 59 this year.

“It’s people suffering in silence,” Hawkins said. “People need to open up and talk about their problems. Too many people just self-medicate.”


While Hawkins only sees the end result of what drugs and alcohol can do, Leashia Moody-Miller, clinical director of Bradford Health Services in Calera, sees individuals who are suffering from addictions on a daily basis.

Moody-Miller said she, too, has seen a rise in prescription medication addiction, especially in young people.

This concerns Moody-Miller because she said many kids can be genetically predisposed to addiction, and abusing just one prescription medication could be the beginning of a long and painful disease.

“What we see and know is addiction is a progressive disease. We know if a person continues to use, it’s going to get worse,” Moody-Miller said.

Susan Staats-Sidwell, executive director and co-owner of the Shelby County Treatment Center in Alabaster, has also seen the number of patients addicted to prescription medications rise at her facility.

The Shelby County Treatment Center treats patients who are addicted to opiates with methadone.

Whether it is a patient who became addicted to prescription pain medication following a car accident or a kid who found one of his parents’ pills, the Shelby County Treatment Center treats a variety of age ranges and opiate addictions.

“Just like alcoholism is a disease, opiate dependence is too,” Staats-Sidwell said.

She said her facility sees a majority of patients who have begun taking prescription medications and have become addicted, but she has also begun to see a recent rise in heroin addiction.

“I haven’t seen heroin use like this since the early ‘90s,” Staats-Sidwell said.

The facility treats patients with liquid methadone in an effort to curb the problems created by pill-form methadone.

Several overdose deaths have occurred in the last five years from a mixture of methadone and alcohol, something Staats-Sidwell takes extremely seriously.

“There’s ongoing, constant training on mixing methadone with other drugs,” Staats-Sidwell said.

The Shelby County Treatment Center also mandates group therapy sessions and education as a means of fulfilling the program’s requirements.

Without the therapy and group education, Staats-Sidwell said relapsing is not far behind.

“It snowballs from there,” Staats-Sidwell said. “It’s a very sad situation.”

Shelby County overdose statistics


-9 confirmed overdoses

-No suicides by overdose*

-Ages range from 27-59

-Six females and three males

-Race: Eight white and one black

-Location: Birmingham (3), Columbiana (2), Calera (1), Chelsea (1), Montevallo (1) and Helena (1).


-41 confirmed overdoses

-Three suicides by overdoses

-Ages range from 18-58

-24 females and 17 males

-Race: All white

-Location: Columbiana (7), Alabaster (4), Birmingham (4), Chelsea (4), Shelby (4), Calera (3), Pelham (3), Wilsonville (3), Helena (2), Hoover (2), Montevallo (2), Harpersville (1), Maylene (1) and Vincent (1).


-53 confirmed overdoses

-One suicide by overdose

-Ages range from 16 to 77

-14 females and 39 males

-Race: 50 white, two black and one HIspanic

-Location: Birmingham (14), Columbiana (9), Alabaster (7), Montevallo (5), Pelham (5), Helena (4), Calera (2), Harpersville (2), Hoover (2), Wilsonville (2) and Westover (1).


-31 confirmed overdoses

-Two suicides by overdose

-Ages range from 20 to 63

-12 females and 19 males

-Race: 26 white, four black and one Hispanic

-Location: Birmingham (8), Alabaster (6), Pelham (4), Calera (3), Columbiana (3), Vincent (2), Helena (1), Montevallo (1), Vandiver (1), Westover (1) and Wilsonville (1).


-16 confirmed overdoses

-No suicides by overdose

-Ages range from 21 to 63

-Eight females and eight males

-Race: All white

-Location: Montevallo (3), Westover (3), Alabaster (2), Birmingham (2), Chelsea (2), Bessemer (1), Columbiana (1), Shelby (1) and Vincent (1).


-10 confirmed overdoses

-Three suicides by overdoses

-Ages range from 22 to 81

-Three females and seven males

-Race: All white

-Location: Alabaster (3), Chelsea (2), Birmingham (1), Calera (1), Hoover (1), Pelham (1) and Vincent (1)

Drugs used in the overdoes include hydrocodone, morphine, Dilaudid, Xanax, alcohol, Phenergan, Dyphenhydramine, methadone, Oxycontin, Ambien, cocaine and a mixture of drugs and alcohol together.

*Deaths ruled a suicide by overdosing are only done so if the victim leaves a note, has a history of suicide attempts or has previously stated that he/she wanted to commit suicide, Shelby County Coroner Diana Hawkins said.