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July 19, 2004 - The Orlando Sentinel (FL)

Back Ache Becomes One Couple's Struggle With Oxycontin Addiction

By Doris Boodsworth

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

ORLANDO, Fla. - In their wedding photo, David and Ashley Rokisky stand barefoot on the beach across the street from their Indian Shores condominium. The bride is leggy and tan and carries a bouquet of ivory roses. The groom has a bodybuilder's physique. "Ashley 3/16/02" is tattooed on his left biceps to honor their wedding date.

The photo was snapped just before sunset at what seemed like the most perfect moment of their lives.

David, then a 35-year-old former police officer, had parlayed business classes into a job as manager with a national computer company. Ashley, then a 21-year-old Web designer, had attended St. Leo's College in Pasco County before heading to Gainesville, Fla., where she met her boss and future husband.

Walking hand-in-hand on the beach near St. Petersburg, Fla., they made a striking couple. They worked out together; they fished together. When David played softball three times a week, Ashley was there to cheer him on.

In their wedding photo, David and Ashley Rokisky stand barefoot on the beach near their Indian Shores condominium. "I had a beautiful wife, a beautiful home, a beautiful job," David said. "Life was perfect."

Within a few months, their idyllic life crashed like the waves in a storm.

In October 2002, David went to a new doctor assigned to him by his insurance company. He had occasional backaches, a holdover from a car accident years earlier.

"I thought maybe they'd give me therapy or some of that ultrasound," David later recalled.

The doctor asked David to rate his back pain on a scale of 1 to 10. David gave it a 2.

"It's not really a bad pain," the former Army Airborne soldier recalled. "It comes and goes."

The family physician tested David's reflexes by thumping his knees with a rubber hammer and having him bend forward.

Then he wrote out a prescription for OxyContin.

"You're actually going to feel like Superman," David said the doctor told him.

Neither David nor Ashley had ever heard of OxyContin, a powerful narcotic that has drawn praise as a painkiller as well as criticism for being addictive and sometimes deadly.

Each day for the next month, David faithfully took one 80-milligram tablet in the morning and another at night.

When his pills ran out, David decided not to renew the prescription.

He felt fine and didn't really like having to take medicine. It was just his nature. He didn't even drink or smoke.

But within days, David started experiencing what he thought was a terrible flu bug.

His back ached "20 times worse" than it ever had. He sweated profusely and vomited.

David returned to the doctor, who said the problem could be a cold and, without much explanation, wrote out double prescriptions for OxyContin.

The warning label with the 80-milligram OxyContin tablets seemed clear: "Swallow whole. Do not crush or chew."

But his doctor had said to chew the first tablet when David, suffering flulike symptoms, returned to see him.

David decided to follow the doctor's orders.

"I almost threw up because the taste was unbelievably disgusting," David recalled.

Crushing an OxyContin tablet immediately releases the full strength of the 12-hour painkiller. Pill maker Purdue Pharma warns against that potentially dangerous practice.

David and his wife Ashley, now 22, said the doctor didn't warn them that OxyContin could be addictive or that the active ingredient, oxycodone, was linked to more than 300 deaths in Florida during 2001.

After crushing it, David washed down the bitter-tasting pill with a soft drink and marveled at the effect. Within minutes, the unbearable pain was gone.

"My legs stopped hurting, and my back stopped hurting," he said. "I wasn't sweating. Nothing."

For the next few months, he continued to see the doctor and take OxyContin. When David complained of sleeping problems, the physician added a prescription for the tranquilizer Xanax.

Life was quickly changing for the Rokiskys.

Ashley grew alarmed as she saw her once active husband turn into "a zombie." She would wake at night to find him sleepwalking outdoors. Their exercise equipment went unused as he sat slumped on the couch. She started driving him to and from work, fearing he would nod off at the wheel.

David was in a haze. On days when he could make it to the office, he closed the door and leaned his head back, unable to function. Before long, he was forced out of his job; Ashley left her Web job to take care of him.

They searched the Internet for answers and were horrified at what they found. Story after story dealt with reports of addiction and even death linked to OxyContin, a Schedule II narcotic.

"We realized the symptoms that I had when I wasn't taking them (OxyContin pills) were withdrawals," David said. "My body was addicted to them."

They called the doctor for an appointment, but Ashley couldn't wait and went by herself to the doctor's office.

"I was trying to explain to them what they were doing to my husband," she said. "They were very combative. They were very argumentative."

Ashley said the doctor threw her out. And when they called later, they found David had been dropped as a patient.

David gave the Orlando Sentinel notarized permission to get his medical records, but the doctor's office would not release them to the newspaper. The doctor said he did not want to release the records because of federal privacy laws.

"I was out of the pills," David said. "And the next thing you know, I started feeling the aching. But I said, `I'm not going back on those things. There's no way.' "

For five days, David said, he was tortured by withdrawal symptoms: uncontrollable vomiting, shaking and muscle cramping. He became so weak he lay in a bed covered in diarrhea.

"I went, `Oh, my God,' " David said.

By winter, David landed in an emergency room for the fourth time, where he was given a tranquilizer and told to see a doctor right away. His hospital-discharge papers were blunt: Risk factors included "disability and death."

The Rokiskys called other doctors covered by their insurance company, but none would see David. "When I said `OxyContin,' they didn't even want to talk to me," he said.

"They acted like we were drug addicts," Ashley said.

David Rokisky, his wife Ashley and his sons David II and Cody, arrive at the hospital for rapid detox in June 2003. His withdrawal symptoms were stronger than ever, an excruciating pain chewing through every bone and muscle. As winter turned to spring, things worsened. With no jobs or income, the Rokiskys lost their beach home and cars. Their five-figure savings disappeared.

After three more trips to the emergency room - and failed attempts at withdrawal on their own - David and Ashley wondered whether they had a future.

"I kept thinking, what's going to happen?" David said. "Overdose?"

Ashley's eyes filled with tears as she recalled her despair. "At what point am I going to have to call his kids and say something happened?"

And then they discovered a Florida detox center that that held an amazing promise: David could be free of OxyContin and his addiction within hours.

Within hours, he could be free of the pain and addiction that had controlled and nearly ruined his life for the past eight months.

But he worried about going under anesthesia. And he had heard horror stories of people convulsing or dying in other states going through rapid detox.

Ashley didn't know he had written a farewell letter and tucked it inside her pocketbook -- just in case.

"I don't even care about the house or jobs anymore," he said, squeezing his wife's hand as he waited to be admitted. "I just want my health back."

David thought his last hope was Dr. Rick Sponaugle, head of Florida Detox and the Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital anesthesiology department in Tarpon Springs, Fla.

Sponaugle is one of about a dozen doctors nationwide who detoxify - cleanse the body of drugs - under general anesthesia in the span of a few hours.

Dr. Rick Sponaugle explains the process of the detox to David Rokisky and his wife Ashley. He also is a man on a mission. Sponaugle has heard David's story many times, detoxing more than 170 patients hooked on OxyContin. The painkiller's active ingredient, oxycodone, is linked to 573 deaths in Florida during 2001 and 2002.

Sponaugle leaned across his desk and spoke in reassuring tones to David and Ashley. "It's not your fault that you're addicted," he told David, who winced as withdrawal pains shot up his legs. David looked down at his right wrist, where he had taped a small picture of Jesus that his father had given him.

A psychologist talked to David about the emotional toll of addiction and the need for support. Then a nurse took David to a hospital bed, and he was sedated.

Before closing his eyes, he had two things to say: First, he wished the doctor who had prescribed him OxyContin eight months earlier were in the bed instead. Then he said, "Thank God for Dr. Sponaugle."

Compared with the havoc of addiction, detox is almost anticlimactic. While David slept, the heart monitor pinged a steady rhythm as a series of drugs coursed through his veins.

A nurse anesthetist gave David shots to ward off diarrhea and vomiting. Clonidine went into his intravenous tube to prevent surges of adrenaline from speeding David's heart rate, a potential danger. Then naloxone dripped through the IV, scrubbing the OxyContin opioids off David's brain and spinal receptors that had been going haywire for months. Next came naltrexone, a drug that would block any residual opiates that tried to attach.

Sponaugle watched David's vital signs, and several hours later the detox was complete. David was taken to the recovery area, where he was monitored closely for the next 48 hours.

Ashley was at home when the call came that David was through detox and doing well. She reached for the letter she had found earlier in her pocketbook.

"If I don't make it, I'll see you in heaven," David had written.

Ashley closed her eyes and prayed that the nightmare was over.

By the next morning, David was alert and free of the opioid.

"You can't express in words the feeling that you have inside when you know that you don't crave a medication," David said.

Three days later, he did 100 push-ups and rode his bike for 20 minutes.

Returning to the beach was another milestone for the couple, a very emotional one.

Sixteen months earlier, they stood on the same sand promising to stay together for better or worse.

But this day held a different kind of celebration. After a hellish eight months, David was free of OxyContin. "I was feeling iffy about coming here," David said of their wedding site. "It actually feels really, really good."

There was joy at returning to the scene of their wedding. There was sadness about their losses. There was gratitude for surviving their ordeal.

"To walk back together with him feeling good like this is amazing," said Ashley.

Today, David helps Sponaugle spread the word about rapid detox. He talks to family members and addicts who are hooked on OxyContin. David and Ashley hope sharing their story will help others.

"I don't think most people understand that there are thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands who were like me and didn't know any better when they became addicted," David said. "I see things differently now. It makes you appreciate your family and other people.

"It makes you appreciate life."

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