Scottsdale begins to come to terms with underlying local opioid epidemic

Doctor-prescribed pills like this hydrocodone tablet  is often the first introduction people get to the world of opiates that, in recent years, has translated into opiate addiction and a nationwide epidemic claiming thousands of lives year after year. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

About every other day the Scottsdale Fire Department is administering the drug Narcan to a human being in the hopes of reversing the effects of an opioid overdose.

Records show the Scottsdale Fire Department has administered Narcan — a prescription medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose — 486 times from Jan. 1, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2016, which equates to the drug being used by first responders about once every 1.5 days.

Both Scottsdale police and fire officials contend the No. 1 issue that has created this narcotic epidemic: the over-prescription of opioids by medical doctors trying to help those claiming to be suffering from pain.

An opioid — pills with names including oxycontin, hydrocodone, percocet and tramadol are apart of the opiate and opioid family — is an opium-like compound that binds to one or more of the three opioid receptors of the body meant to alleviate pain.

Information provided by the Arizona Department of Health Services shows in 2016, 790 Arizonans died from opioid overdoses, which is an average of about two people a day. Arizona health officials contends the 2016 count of opioid-related deaths is a 74 percent increase over the past four years.

Of the 486 times Narcan was used in the city of Scottsdale only 117 of them are listed as effective, according to Scottsdale fire officials. In addition, numbers show that 26 Scottsdale residents died due to an opioid overdose in calendar year 2015.

“Upon review, you will immediately notice that Scottsdale has the third highest total opioid-related deaths, (26), among cities in Maricopa County behind only Phoenix and Mesa in 2015,” said Scottsdale Assistant Police Chief Jeff Walther in an April 26 email sent to members of Scottsdale City Council. “This has been the impetus behind SPD and SFD standing at the forefront in combating this crisis through education, prevention, enforcement, crisis intervention training and officer preparedness measures (Narcan) as discussed last night by Chief Rodbell and Chief Shannon.”

Earlier this month Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed an emergency declaration to address the growing epidemic of opioid deaths throughout the state.

“As the number of opioid overdoses and deaths increase at an alarming rate, we must take action. It’s time to call this what it is — an emergency,” said Gov. Ducey in his emergency declaration.

“Most of us know someone impacted by substance abuse — our family, our friends, our neighbors. Our hearts ache for them, but that isn’t enough. We must do more. I’m declaring a statewide health emergency because we need to know more about the epidemic, including enhanced data that illustrates when and where these overdoses occur so that we can develop real, targeted solutions.”

Pills, pills and more pills

Councilman David Smith has formally requested a council presentation on the local impacts the nationwide opioid epidemic is having in the community of Scottsdale.

“Like most Scottsdale residents, I just assumed this was somebody else’s problem and not mine,” he said in a June 20 phone interview recalling a brief discussion that came up during fiscal year 2017-18 budget deliberations.

David Smith

“This is just the tip of the iceberg. I want to know much deeper than that — how pervasive is this problem in our community? In Scottsdale, it seems, the people in the medical community is who we need to speak with.”

Mr. Smith points out the affluence of some within Scottsdale city limits creates a new subset to the addict model.

“We are a community that is affluent enough that some of our citizens can just keep buying drugs,” he said.

“There are several reasons this part of the iceberg is larger than we care to admit. It is scary stuff, and the community may not be in a mood to admit the problem exists. But it does and we need to find a way to create some real partnerships with the medical community.”

Fire Chief Tom Shannon says over-prescription is a major role in the Scottsdale slice of the opioid epidemic.

“The majority of calls for service ultimately end up being opiate in nature,” he said in a June 19 phone interview of calls for service related to altered consciousness. “The majority of people are living seemingly normal lives and function with pain-medication addictions. A good portion of those calls are related to a longterm-care facility.”

Chief Shannon points out first responders in Scottsdale are not encountering burnt spoons, syringes and heroin packets when responding to calls for altered consciousness.

“These are not street scenarios,” he said but also points out that in recent months that trend is slowly changing.

Tom Shannon

“We have not seen an illicit drug spike that I would call dramatic — it has been a slow increase. We are seeing far more functional users of opioids and heroin. But what we are seeing in the last year or so, is people are operating on a premise that they can no longer get the pain medication so they have to find the heroin. It has just been progressive and not sudden.”

Chief Shannon contends over-prescription is the first stop on the road to addiction.

“I don’t think this problem is going away anytime soon,” he said. “I see this as an education issue especially for longterm-care facilities. I think we are going to do all we can within reason.”

Scottsdale-based Psychologist, Dr. Farrah Hauke, is a mental health professional helping those who seek to take back their lives despite the history of opiate addiction.

Dr. Hauke, who has a background in both private practice and the Department of Corrections, says stories of success are possible, but the road to recovery is a full-time endeavor for many.

Dr. Farrah Hauke

“The majority of my clients are not solely coming for addiction, but I do treat substance abuse,” she said in a June 20 phone interview. “Many of them find, and have turned to street drugs, like heroin and other substances. Many of them I have gotten to admit to exaggerating their symptoms to get pills and doctor shopping is coming — I see that a lot.  They are not addressing the root of the problem.”

Dr. Hauke says the road to recovery is often fraught with lies, personal struggles and the strong potential for relapse incidents.

“I am not sure the percentage is that high, but relapse is often apart of it” she said after being asked if the potential for relapse and failure to maintain sobriety lifelong is as high as 80 percent of those who identify themselves as addicts.

“Pretending that won’t happen is counter productive. Yes, I do see folks who have a hard time abstaining from the drug, but I do have success stories with people who have many years of sobriety.”

When asked if addiction is a disease, Dr. Hauke replied,

“I do think there is a way that our brains are changed and they are rewired to being prone to addiction. Our experiences, our childhood, the behaviors that we have encountered — they do shape our lives. Yes, it is an addiction but people still have the opportunity to get help. Don’t give up and keep trying because I do think patients can. I am not mitigating the fact there is a strong genetic component.”

Overcoming the addiction

Both law enforcement and health officials agree the 21st Century addict is not what people typically assume based on a caricature of addiction curated in the mid-1980s.

Today’s addict is typically gainfully employed, well-groomed and college-educated, law enforcement officials say.

Travis Atchison with his daughter Shayla recently enjoying a playdate that he can now experience due to the conquering of his opiate addiction. (Submitted photo)

Midwest transplant Travis Atchison has overcome his addiction to controlled substances and, in the process, has become a better man, a better father and a true contributer to society.

Mr. Atchison hails from a little town in Kansas called Salina where the population peeks around 70,000 and high school rivalries continue to be the talk of the town. He was both a high school and college basketball standout, a charismatic person with an infectious personality and a joy for living his life.

Mr. Atchison became a heroin addict over a period of time and it took him more than 30 attempts to effectively quit one of the most addictive substances on planet Earth. When asked what kind of a person he is today, he replied:

“Someone who has goals, someone who pushes himself every day to be better and more importantly than anything I am a father and a pretty good one,” he said in a June 20 written response to e-mailed questions.

“I didn’t have relationships when I was on drugs. With that particular drug I think it is impossible to have relationships with people. Now I have a relationship with family and friends again. There for awhile I had no emotions. Heroin took those from me.”

But during the years of narcotic addiction, Mr. Atchison says he was not the person he once was.

“I was not a good person at all,” he said. “Lying, robbing people, doing all the terrible things that come with doing that particular drug. I had to put the thought of that person behind me in order to move forward. However, I am aware that if I was to ever do heroin again I will be dead. That is a realization now that wasn’t there before.”

Mr. Atchison comes from the nice part of town that locals of Salina call “the hill” and despite his robust circle of friends and loving family who have supported him every year of his life, his desire to feed the addiction was always there, he says.

“For me, being sober is most important,” he said. “Being productive naturally comes with a sober lifestyle in my opinion. Sober is where it all starts for me and it’s important because without it I have nothing. And I have already been down that road and it’s not a good one.”

He says he didn’t really understand he had a problem until his body started to show signs of substance dependence and a frightful phone call from a police officer.

“I realized I needed help when I would wake up sick every day and I couldn’t quit after trying multiple times,” he said.  “Rock bottom was watching people overdose and getting a call from a police officer one morning telling me a friend of mines girlfriend had overdosed and was dead when I was with both of them the night before.”

For a period of time, Mr. Atchison had to fight for full-time custody of his children — 4-year-old Shayla and 2-year-old Slade — but today he is a full-time, single parent making it work every single day, he says.

“I was a slave to heroin as it dictated everything I did,” he explained. “I think any heroin addict can identify with the fact your life isn’t yours anymore once you touch it. Now I have ups and downs just like anyone else but it’s stuff I can overcome. With heroin there were only downs and I couldn’t overcome it no matter how much I tried.”

His children is what keeps the monster of addiction at bay for Mr. Atchison, he says.

“Every time I look at my 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son it pushes me and reminds me what I am doing all this for,” he said.

“I didn’t overcome on my own — I couldn’t do that. I tried at least 30 times. I asked for God’s help, I asked for it one time and that’s all it took. Someone who doesn’t believe in God its gonna be hard for that person to understand that. It’s something I could not do on my own and I gave it to God and never looked back.”

Coming close to death, submitting to a higher power and the realization there are children that deserves his care, are major motivators for why Mr. Atchison chooses to lead a productive life.

“My children are my world. They are a big part of the reason I was able to quit,” he said. “I couldn’t stand the fact I was leaving them and running off to get heroin every day. I remember crying on the way to dealers but I just couldn’t stop on my own. You go to a real dark place when you reach that realization that you can’t stop.”

The one truth Mr. Atchison has to live with everyday is if he chooses to put heroin in his body again, he will likely die.

“I am stronger. Something about hitting rock bottom and coming so close to death changes a person,” he points out. “I know that if I ever do heroin again I am dead. But I also know I overcame it and I beat it and no matter what the statistics I refuse to be one.”

It’s views like this one that are common for Mr. Atchison nowadays as he raises both of his children: his son Slade and daughter Shayla. (Submitted photo)

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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