A Mother’s Heartbreak: Heroin’s Toll in Montgomery County

A Mother’s Heartbreak: Heroin’s Toll in Montgomery County

Heroin and prescription narcotics are killing young adults all over this area, leaving devastated families behind.

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A CALL CAME INTO Montgomery County’s Emergency Communications Center at 4:16 a.m. last Jan. 4 from a brick colonial near Manor Country Club in Rockville. Inside the house, Alex Benzel, a St. John’s College High School and West Virginia University graduate, lay motionless on the bathroom floor in his basement. The 28-year-old had come home to spend the holidays with his family.   

“I want you to place the heel of your hand on his breast bone in the center of his chest, right between the nipples, and put your other hand on top of that, OK?” a 911 dispatcher told Alex’s mother, Renee Benzel, who’d been awakened by the sound of her son’s friend screaming her name from the foyer. “You’re gonna pump the chest hard and fast at least twice per second and 2 inches deep, do you understand?”

“OK,” she said, frantically starting the compressions. “One, two, three, four…”

She couldn’t comprehend what was happening. She’d spent the whole afternoon at home with her son, putting away Christmas decorations, playing with the dogs and watching movies. They’d always been close: Ever since his father died of cancer, leaving Benzel alone with three children, Alex had tried to be the rock in the family. As a teenager, he’d offer to run errands with his mom and help her around the house. He encouraged her to spend time with friends and try to have fun again. “Come on, let’s go,” he’d say when she was invited to a party. Then he’d insist on going with her so she didn’t have to drive alone.

Earlier that night, a rainy Saturday, they’d made dinner together and sprawled out on the living room couch for the Ravens-Steelers playoff game. Around midnight, she’d kissed him good night before going upstairs to bed.

“I’m right behind you,” he said.  

He had asked his mom to get him up early so the two of them could leave for the gym at 8:30 Sunday morning. She was going to a Bodypump class, and Alex, who’d been a personal trainer for kids in Bethesda, wanted to work out before getting on the road. He was supposed to be leaving in the morning for Connecticut, where he had a month left in an outpatient rehabilitation program. He’d become addicted to prescription painkillers four years earlier after herniating two discs in his back while lifting weights.

But he’d been clean for seven months—no pills or heroin—and his mom couldn’t believe how happy and healthy he seemed. He was lining up a job for when he moved home in February and talking about returning to school to study physical therapy. For Christmas, Alex had bought his mom a book about strength and resilience. He was starting to act like himself again.

“Are they coming?” Benzel asked as she continued pushing on her son’s chest. It had been less than a minute since she started CPR, but it seemed like forever. His face was turning blue.

“They’re already on the way, OK?” the dispatcher told her. “You’re doing a good job—just keep going.”

“Please, Alex,” she said through tears.

“Just keep counting those compressions with me, OK? One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four…”  

WHEN MONTGOMERY COUNTY police Capt. Dinesh Patil arrives on the scene of a fatal heroin overdose, he’s often struck by the way the house reminds him of his own. There’s usually a decent car in the driveway, not an old beater, he says, and a nice, well-kept yard. The rooms are clean, and there are family photos hanging on the walls. Sometimes he’ll notice the simplest thing, like a box of cereal on top of the refrigerator, the same kind his kids eat at home. Another reminder that this could be his family. Anyone’s family.

Fifteen years ago, when Patil was a patrol officer in Silver Spring, the heroin addicts he saw spent their days stealing and going to pawn shops. Heroin was more of a Baltimore thing.

Nowadays, he says, it’s all over Montgomery County. And many of the people using it started with something prescribed by doctors—opioids such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin, which are used to relieve pain but can also be highly addictive. Prescription painkillers, also known as narcotics, are expensive—one 40-milligram pill of OxyContin sells for $40 on the street in Montgomery County—while heroin costs about $10 a bag, which can be cheaper than a six-pack of beer.

“I think what people don’t always understand is that the prescription opioids that are out there, if they are crushed, snorted, injected—it’s the same as heroin,” says Meghan Westwood, executive director of the Avery Road Treatment Center in Rockville, the county’s only publicly-funded detoxification and rehabilitation facility, which often has a two- to three-day wait list for new admissions. “It’s the same high.”   

Beth Kane Davidson, director of Suburban Hospital’s Addiction Treatment Center, is seeing a rise in the number of patients who come through what she calls the “back door to heroin.”

They’re prescribed painkillers—sometimes more than they need—become dependent on them, and start using heroin, which is also an opioid, when they can’t get the pills anymore.

Often, she says, it happens to the people you would least expect.

“You go to get your wisdom teeth out—what are you leaving with? Are you leaving with 20 Vicodin, or are you leaving with four? Depends on who you go to,” says Davidson, who also has her own practice specializing in addiction. “I do think overall doctors are getting very cautious. They are cutting back. …But the problem is: The horse is already out of the gate for a lot of people.”

A 2013 Maryland Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that 3.9 percent of high school students in Montgomery County had used heroin at least once, and 14.1 percent had taken a prescription drug that wasn’t meant for them. Some of the addicts Davidson works with get their drugs from a parent or grandparent’s weekly pill box. Others get them from friends:

Some young people don’t want their pain pills—the drugs can cause nausea and grogginess—so they bring them to school to hand out or sell. “The scary thing is, and I try to explain this to the young people: You might take something and absolutely fall in love with it, and then what are you gonna do?” Davidson says.

According to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, there were 578 heroin-related deaths statewide last year; 487 people died in motor vehicle accidents. In Montgomery County, there were 33 heroin-related fatalities in 2014, up from 11 in 2011. (The number of deaths related to prescription opioids—there were 19 in the county last year—has not changed significantly.)

Experts say the rise in heroin deaths may be linked to heroin laced with fentanyl, an opioid more powerful than morphine that is often used in hospitals to treat cancer pain.

In response to the spike in heroin overdoses, the Avery Road Treatment Center now offers training to the public on how to use Narcan, a life-saving medication that can be administered through the nostrils to reverse the effects of an overdose related to heroin or a prescription opioid. “We just got certified, so we can train families and we can get them certified and get them a prescription,” Westwood says.


Left: Benzel keeps a tribute to Alex on the mantel; she also wears her son’s white wristband every day.  Right: Alex and his mom celebrated Thanksgiving together about five weeks before he died.

In the two months between early December 2014 and late January of this year, officers in Patil’s special investigations division responded to nine fatalities in Montgomery County related to heroin or prescription painkillers; nearly all of the victims were in their mid to late 20s. Alex Benzel was one of them.

After his mother went to bed that night, a neighbor came to their house with heroin. The lack of oxygen to Alex’s brain caused so much damage that doctors at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney told his mom that he would never recover, and she laid next to her son with her head on his chest before a priest came to administer last rites.

Four weeks later, Casey Ryan, the brother of one of Alex’s friends, was found dead at his childhood home in Brookeville with a needle lying next to him. Ryan, who was 25, was a former Sherwood High School student who dreamed of being a meteorologist. Kate Reinstein, a 2013 University of Maryland graduate who planned to get a master’s in social work and become a counselor, fatally overdosed on pain pills at her Aspen Hill apartment a week after Thanksgiving last year. Kate, who was 27, was expecting a baby in June; there were sonogram photos hanging on her refrigerator.

“You go through hell when you have an addicted child because you just never know what’s gonna happen—they become someone you don’t really know,” says Kate’s mother, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Marielsa Bernard. Her daughter struggled with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder since elementary school and started abusing OxyContin, and eventually heroin, in college. “After they die, you’re in hell still, but it’s a different kind of hell.”

ATTORNEY LYNN CAUDLE Boynton, president of The Bar Association of Montgomery County, attended four funerals in the span of three months in late 2014 and early 2015—for Kate, Alex, Casey and another young man in his 20s, all of whom overdosed on heroin or prescription painkillers. Boynton was there when Casey’s mother, Jimena Ryan, a family friend, stood up at her son’s service and said, “I don’t want anyone else to become a member of this mothers club.”

Boynton, who lives in Rockville, had never thought about the old, unfinished prescription medications sitting in her cabinets, from things like dental surgery, and the problems they could cause for her kids. She couldn’t believe how naive she’d been. If Casey’s mother could talk so openly about how he died, she thought there must be something she could do too.

Boynton organized a meeting in February to bring together county officials, fire and rescue personnel and the families of addicts—Ryan, Benzel and Bernard spoke about their children—and decided to make the heroin crisis a priority for the bar association. The organization instituted a yearlong academic program—titled “Speak Up, Save a Life”—in five county high schools to raise awareness about the dangers of opioids, and created a speaker’s bureau that will give presentations to youth sports teams and at schools and places of worship.

One of the speakers is Lea Edgecomb, a 22-year-old Poolesville resident who was a freshman at Quince Orchard High School when she smoked marijuana and snorted heroin at a friend’s house, went into cardiac arrest, and was left paralyzed in her arms and legs. It was her first time using heroin. “You just don’t know how your body is going to react,” Edgecomb says. “I’m a quadriplegic now because of a choice I made when I was 15.”

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy says he spoke at a chamber of commerce meeting in Bethesda this spring and was met by “largely stunned silence” when he talked about heroin. He says people still have a false sense of security that the drug won’t touch their lives.

In June, 17 people were indicted on federal drug trafficking charges for conspiring to distribute heroin and crack cocaine out of an apartment complex on Bel Pre Road in Silver Spring, close to where Alex Benzel lived. The setup was like something you’d see on the TV show The Wire, McCarthy says, involving small children and “runners” on the lookout for police.

He’s heard so many horror stories involving heroin and painkillers that he was afraid to let his 22-year-old son use a liquid form of oxycodone that was prescribed after a tonsillectomy this past summer.

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