Germantown teen lives horror of drug use
Damascus holds events to raise awareness about rising opiate abuse
Before June 4, 2009, Lea Edgecomb was a popular freshman honors student at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg.
Lea broke up with her boyfriend that night and fought with her mother. She went to a friend's house in Derwood, where she and the friend smoked marijuana.
Lea's mother, Lisa Essich, sent her a text message that she could not spend the night because she had to help clean in the morning.
Lea's friend had previously introduced her to oxycodone, a prescription opiate used illegally to produce an effect similar to heroin.
That night, the friend brought out the real thing.
"I was high," Lea said. "I was angry with my life and just thinking, Screw it.'"
Lea's body had a severe reaction to the heroin. Now paralyzed, she faces years of therapy to regain her ability to perform simple tasks, such as feeding herself.
Lea, 17, can speak in short sentences.
"She's depressed, feels like she doesn't have a purpose," Essich said.
Increasing use of opiates
Nationwide, about 6.9 million individuals aged 12 or older were nonmedical users of prescription-type drugs, such as opioid pain relievers, tranquilizers, sedatives and stimulants in 2007, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center.
The most recent data available report unintentional overdose deaths involving prescription opioids increased by 114 percent from 2001 (3,994) to 2005 (8,541), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics. The number of treatment admissions for prescription opioid abuse increased by 74 percent from 46,115 in 2002 to 80,131 in 2006, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The problem is spreading to communities throughout the county, said Capt. Luther T. Reynolds, commander of the Montgomery County 5th Police District.
Washington, D.C., and Baltimore are the main distribution points, according to Lt. Marcus Jones, commander of the Montgomery County Police drug enforcement section.
The Avery Road Treatment Center, the county-supported inpatient detoxification program, admits about 1,200 patients a year, and the number of young adult and adolescent admissions has surged in recent years, according to executive director Meghan Westwood. In 2006, 10 percent were younger than 24; that number in 2010 increased to 18 percent.
Avery Road is also seeing an increase in the number of people admitted for opiate use, from 11 percent in 2006 to 23 percent in 2010.
At 9 p.m. on June 4, 2009, Essich got a call that both girls were unconscious and Lea was foaming at the mouth.
"My whole world fell apart," Essich said.
Doctors who treated Lea at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville told Essich her daughter was in cardiac arrest for eight minutes before they were able to revive her.
Lea was flown to Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where she was in a coma for about a month, Essich said. Her prognosis was bleak.
"There was not a lot of brain activity," Essich said.
Lea was having seizures and also had kidney, liver and heart problems.
After a month, Lea opened her eyes but was unresponsive. After two months, Lea made moaning sounds and responded to commands to stick out her tongue.
Two months after the night she used heroin, Lea was at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., and said, "Mama."
Lea still has problems with short-term memory. She went home for Christmas in 2009 but was readmitted to the hospital the next month with a life-threatening infection.
She has been home since last Memorial Day weekend.
A Medicaid-paid nurse is with her for 12 hours on weekdays. She receives physical therapy twice a week and emotional counseling twice a week. Montgomery County Public Schools sends a teacher to her Germantown house every day. In November, she remembered how to do algebra.
Oxycodone, a synthetic form of heroin, is known by the trade name OxyContin. Its active ingredients are found in prescription pain medications such as Percocet and Percodan.
Oxycodone can be bought illegally for $40 to $80 a pill; heroin costs $10 to $50 a vial, Jones said.
Opiates are physically addictive and can be lethal if used in combination with drugs such as Valium, which suppresses the respiratory system.
"They go into withdrawal if not using regularly," Westwood said. "It's painful, it feels very bad. They need to get into treatment."
The availability of prescription medication contributes to oxycodone abuse, according to police.
Nationally, almost 4.6 million emergency rooms visits in 2009 were drug-related, of which 45.1 percent were linked to abuse and misuse of drugs, both legal and illegal, according to data compiled by the Drug Abuse Warning Network.
More than a quarter of all visits 1.2 million were due to prescription drug abuse, an increase of 98.4 percent from the 627,291 visits recorded in 2004.
Use of illegal drugs accounted for 1 million emergency room visits, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Targeting the problem
Lea shared her story Saturday at an event in Damascus to raise awareness about drug use.
Essich hopes that talking about her experience will give Lea a new sense of purpose and that she will see she lived to prevent other teenagers from making the same mistake.
Damascus resident Jason Bourdeaux, with sponsorship from the Damascus Community Recreation Center, organized the event, which offered stations where parents and teens could talk to drug treatment experts and police officers.
Police officers have trained Poolesville High School faculty in dealing with teens they suspect of drug use and are planning a session for Damascus High School teachers.
A community meeting for parents and teens is scheduled for Jan. Wednesday in Damascus. This is a pilot for meetings to be held later in other parts of the county, Reynolds said.
"We want to be positive, make sure people know there's a common problem, things we can do about it," he said. "We want to catch kids early before they develop an addiction."
Police made 2,679 drug-related arrests in Montgomery County in 2009. Police records do not include the type of drugs involved.
District 1 Rockville 738
District 2 Bethesda 249
District 3 Silver Spring 541
District 4 Wheaton 460
District 5 Germantown 341
District 6 Gaithersburg 350
Source: Montgomery County Police Department
If you go
A community meeting on drug use for parents and teenagers, organized by the Montgomery County Police Department, will be held 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Damascus Community Recreation Center, 25520 Oak Drive.