Editor's note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series, Fighting Back: The Opioid Crisis," done in partnership with KTVL. Part 1: Four former addicts talk about how they overcame their demons and are now helping others. Part 3: Hospitals are rethinking the way they administer opioids to help prevent addiction.
Julia Pinsky and her husband, musician David Pinsky, were getting ready to go to an Ashland Blues Society meeting when she walked into their home office and found their son lying there, unresponsive and not breathing.
They both tried cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Paramedics arrived at their rural Ashland property and also administered CPR.
“They tried, but it was too late,” Julia says. “It was pretty awful.”
Max Pinsky, 25, died of a heroin overdose Jan. 15, 2013.
He was the fourth young man in the Ashland area to die of an overdose that winter.
The death of her child launched Julia on a mission to learn more about addiction, overdose and how to prevent more people from dying.
“I spent a lot of time online. I didn’t really feel like talking to anybody, to be honest, but I wanted to make some sort of sense of it,” she says.
Julia learned the medication naloxone can reverse an opioid overdose, but it wasn’t easily available in the Rogue Valley to the average person.
Opioids include heroin and prescription pain pills such as OxyContin and Vicodin. They bind to opioid receptors in the brain, producing euphoria but also suppressing breathing.
When sprayed into the nose or injected, naloxone binds to those same opioid receptors, blocking the action of a drug and restoring breathing.
In its nasal spray form, naloxone is as easy to administer as a squirt of nasal decongestant people commonly take for colds. The overdose victim doesn’t have to be breathing for the antidote to work because it’s absorbed through the mucous membranes of the nose.
Julia doesn’t know whether Max could have been saved by naloxone. She believes he likely was already dead by the time she found him.
But determined to help other people, she and her husband founded the nonprofit Max’s Mission to distribute free naloxone in the community and raise awareness about the danger of overdosing.
Their mission has become even more important this year.
Jackson County is in the midst of another overdose wave, with at least 22 people dying so far of suspected opioid overdoses in 2018 — compared to eight for all of 2017, according to county officials.
From happy kid to addict
Originally from England, Julia came to America to visit a friend in Ashland and was introduced to David. They eventually married and had Max, followed by another son and a daughter.
They settled in Ashland, owned businesses, and Julia taught at a Waldorf School.
“He was a very happy, boisterous child, just a wonderful little boy,” Julia says of Max, noting that he loved sports and games.
As he grew into his teens, he began experimenting with drugs, she says.
“I think he certainly started smoking pot like plenty of kids in Ashland do — and did. It’s not a new thing,” Julia says.
Max had issues with depression as he got older, and Julia believes he sometimes turned to drugs to self-medicate. After an injury from a car accident, he received a prescription for opioid pain pills.
Max became part of a large group of Americans using opioids as doctors ramped up prescriptions of narcotic painkillers.
“Looking back on it, I really had no idea that the opioid epidemic had started,” Julia says.
In the 1990s, the medical community was faulted for under-treating pain, especially for acute injuries and terminal cancer. Pharmaceutical companies marketed opioids as an effective, safe painkilling tool with little risk of addiction — even though the class of drugs is responsible for waves of opioid addiction in the United States, starting with opium and morphine in the 1850s.
Many people who became addicted to prescription opioids eventually turned to street heroin.
“I had certainly seen heroin use in London, but I wasn’t really aware that it was going on in Ashland or Medford,” Julia says. “So we didn’t consider it a problem at all.”
Max was caught driving under the influence of intoxicants twice in 2008, then stayed out of legal trouble for four years, Jackson County Circuit Court records show.
Julia says he was using drugs but generally kept his life under control. He had friends, was very hardworking and focused on his career as a cook at Ashland restaurants.
“We knew he liked to use recreational drugs and probably too much for what one would consider sensible. But he was young and you thought he might grow out of it because he was only 25 when he died,” Julia says.
Although family members were concerned and knew in an abstract way that he could die, it hadn’t sunk in as a real possibility, she says.
“We didn’t think of that. But what we did see was that when he did start to use, he went downhill very rapidly. And then it was a bit like trying to stop a waterfall from gushing over a cliff. You just couldn’t stop it.”
In 2012, Max was arrested for his third DUII and driving with a suspended license, then heroin possession and meth possession later in the year, court records show.
In November 2012, Max found one of his friends dead from an overdose in an apartment. Another acquaintance also had recently died, Julia says.
“Maybe it woke him up a little bit, but maybe it made him spiral a bit more,” she says.
Julia says it was shocking to see how heroin took control over her son’s life. She estimates he began using about 15 to 16 months before he died in January 2013. She says opioids like heroin are powerful, dangerous drugs.
“That’s the scary part, really. Because they just take over somebody’s brain and they lead them on this path,” she says.
The family held a memorial service for Max. Then tragedy struck again when a friend who spoke at the service later overdosed and died — bringing the Ashland overdose death toll to four in a six-month span, Julia says.
“If some of us had had naloxone, maybe that would be different,” she says.
On a mission
Julia contacted local medical, government and nonprofit officials about her interest in making naloxone more available in the Rogue Valley.
Paramedics and police officers now regularly carry the overdose antidote, but the medication wasn’t easily available to the public in 2013.
When a health professional suggested a community meeting about the antidote, Julia responded that they needed to have naloxone to give away if they held a meeting.
“Nobody had any in their cupboards to give away, so we started a GoFundMe,” she says, speaking of the website that allows people to hold online fundraisers.
With the money raised, naloxone advocates held a meeting and gave away the antidote.
Julia and David founded the nonprofit Max’s Mission in November 2016 to serve as a vehicle to receive donations to buy naloxone, which they can get at a discounted price. Max’s Mission regularly holds antidote give-away events in public locations, including libraries.
“It’s been amazing. It’s really been much, much more than I ever thought it would be because I think the community has seen that we do need it,” Julia says.
Also in 2016, Oregon changed its laws to allow pharmacists to sell naloxone without a prescription to the public.
In April of this year, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued an advisory urging people to carry the lifesaving drug — including family, friends and those personally at risk from overdosing on heroin or prescription medication.
Adams noted that 115 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses.
Julia says average people can save their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, parents or grandparents from a deadly overdose.
“It’s like having an EpiPen or a fire extinguisher,” she says, referring to the medication that can reverse a deadly allergic reaction.
Julia, who carries naloxone in her purse, says she gets frustrated when people say they don’t need the antidote.
“If you can put something in your bathroom cabinet that can save a life, why would you say that? But people do all the time because of stigma, because of some sort of stupid idea that they are showing a weakness,” she says.
People often think they don’t need to have naloxone because they have a friend or family member in drug treatment. But Julia says recovery from addiction is a long-term process that often includes relapses.
Medical professionals say taking opioids after a break from drugs can be especially deadly because people’s tolerance is lower.
Julia says addiction shouldn’t be a death sentence. Administering naloxone could keep someone alive long enough to seek treatment.
“No one’s going to get treatment if they’re not alive,” she says.
In the first six months of 2018, Max’s Mission distributed more than 375 free doses of naloxone and trained 475 people how to use the nasal spray form of the antidote.
In recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day, Julia is helping to organize an event from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 31, in Pear Blossom Park, 312 E. Fourth St., Medford.
People can get naloxone training, hear from overdose survivors, listen to live music and get information about addiction treatment providers in the community.
The slogan for the event is, “See an overdose, save a life.”
Julia says it’s been a long road since her son died in 2013 and there is still a lot of work to do. She plans to keep spreading awareness about overdose risk and naloxone in the Rogue Valley and beyond.
“If you save one life, it’s worth it,” she says.
For more information about Max’s Mission, see www.maxsmission.org.
To watch a video on how to administer naloxone, or to learn more about opioid safety, addiction treatment, opioid-free pain management and more, see staysafeoregon.com.
Part 3: Hospitals are rethinking the way they administer opioids to help prevent addiction.