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Addicted to pills their doctors prescribed

Amy Gore's hell started in 2004.

She was a student at Niagara County Community College and a back-seat passenger in a friend's car that slowed to make a turn. They were hit from behind on Military Road.

With back and neck injuries, Gore was put on pain medication that took control of her life for years.

"I didn't know the road I was going down," she said.

Now a wife and mother, Gore also had no idea that her prescription medication would lead her to spend a day in jail, locked up in connection with illegal prescription drug activities that police tied to Dr. Pravinchandra V. Mehta's Niagara Falls medical office.

"I was not involved with any drug ring. I was not a patient of Dr. Mehta's. I have never sold drugs," Gore said. "I was on pain medication since I was 20. I was addicted to the medication I got from doctors. I started buying on the streets. I made a mistake."

Today, Gore says, she is off drugs, attending therapy and feeling better than she's felt in years, even though she still suffers from neck and back pain.

She is, one might say, collateral damage -- a patient on pain medication who ends up addicted to the narcotics that were designed to help, not harm.

So is Bill Litz. The Lancaster man was 52 years old in 2002 when he injured himself at work and ended up first in physical therapy and then on the narcotic painkiller Lortab. The medication enabled him to go back to work.
But by 2008, Litz was addicted to OxyContin, another narcotic painkiller his doctor prescribed. His marriage fell apart. He quit his job. Today, after two stints at detoxification, Litz said he's gotten his life back together.

Studies peg the addiction risk at less than 4 percent for all pain patients and less than 1 percent for patients with no history of drug abuse or addiction and who take their medication as directed. The rate is as high as 26 percent in certain groups of patients, such as those who suffer from depression.

Research also shows that people addicted to their legally obtained prescription opioids are likely to take their addiction to the streets.

A recent University at Buffalo study of 75 detox patients found 41 percent said their addiction started with drugs prescribed by their own doctors, for their own pain.

Twenty-seven percent reported initially buying opioids as a street drug, and 32 percent got the medication from someone else's prescription -- such as a friend's leftover pills, or a grandparent's medicine cabinet.

However, 92 percent said that, at some point, they were buying drugs off the streets.

The study also found the average age among the addicts was 32, but that the average age when first exposed to opioids was 19. Sixty-five percent were male; 77 percent were white.

"This information suggests that there is a progressive nature to opioid use, and that prescription opioids can be the gateway to illicit drug addiction," said Dr. Richard Blondell, with UB's Department of Family Medicine, and a senior author of the study.

That's the route Gore took.

After her accident, Gore said, she received Lortab at the hospital for pain from herniated and ruptured disks. She remained on the pills upon discharge and continued on them when seeing her family doctor. She eventually was referred to a pain specialist, who provided back and neck therapy that didn't work and who upped her medication, she said. Years later, when the pain worsened and she was back with her regular doctor, her prescription was increased again, this time with a new painkiller, Opana.

"It was a whirlwind," Gore said. "They were wearing off quicker. The pain was there. The withdrawal was there. I was waking up in the middle of the night with sweats. I had never gone through anything like this."

She took what painkillers her doctor prescribed and then bought more on the streets.

She no longer recognized the person she had become.

"Go to the store, take a pill; give the baby a bath, take a pill. It's a bad cycle," she said.

Gore said she went to Erie County Medical Center to detox last November.

Gore and Litz said they are telling their stories so others don't end up in the circumstances they are in.

Doctors and patients need to be more careful with addictive narcotics, they said.

Today, Litz and Gore both say they are doing well and looking forward to their lives without having to worry about making sure they have enough opioids to fill their craving.

But there is one remnant of her past life that Gore must still contend with.

She was charged with buying drugs from someone who illegally obtained prescriptions from Mehta's office and is waiting for her case to come up in federal court.

"I'd never been arrested before," she said. "This wasn't the person I am."

-- Susan Schulman

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