Experts, survivors warn of the perils of prescription drugs in Riverhead

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Cathy L. speaks about her son’s nine-year battle against drug addiction with a photo of her son, Philip, in the background Thursday night.

She spoke slowly Thursday night while describing her 20-year-old son, Philip, as a “beautiful person inside and out.” The mother, who gave her name as Cathy L., talked about his athletic prowess and his love of surfing, “the only thing that brought peace to his chaotic life.”

About how he was a good, smart kid.

Her tone didn’t change as she told the dozens of parents and students gathered in the Riverhead High School auditorium how she knew her son was dead when she found him one June morning in 2010 when he lost his battle with prescription drug addiction. Cathy said she wouldn’t stop giving her son CPR until the paramedics pulled her away. He had died from choking on his own vomit in his sleep after taking a concoction of “morphine and oxycodone.”

“I am here today, a mother without a son, to warn you of the dangers of these drugs, to warn you of how powerful addiction is.” Cathy said, measuring each word in a weary voice that cracked as she read from the pieces of paper she held. “My hopes and dreams are gone. I will never be able to hold my son, talk to him, hug him ever again.”

Cathy’s words were the introduction to a drug abuse forum held Thursday night for parents and community members to learn about the dangers of prescription drug abuse, especially pain killers, a dangerous “epidemic” experts say is threatening today’s youth.

The event was sponsored by the Riverhead Community Awareness Program anti-drug group.

Dr. Alexis Hugelmeyer, administrative director of medical education at Peconic Bay Medical Center, along with Philip’s aunt said drug overdose has become the second-leading cause of accidental death among young people, behind only motor vehicle accidents.

Drug overdose deaths have doubled in the last decade.

Drug abuse crosses every racial and socioeconomic barrier, Dr. Hugelmeyer said, warning parents that the “not my kid” mentality is dangerous.

“These are Philip’s friends,” she said, showing photos of Philip’s friends in mourning. “They don’t look like junkies right? They don’t look like bad kids… Your kid knows about this stuff, is curious about it, knows kids who are doing it.” The same presentation was given to 1,500 students in Riverhead during two assemblies earlier Thursday, she said. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room at either assembly, the doctor said.

Part of the danger of prescription drugs, she said, is that they’re so easy to get and kids think that because a doctor prescribed them, they are a “safe way to get high.” But prescription drugs are not safe for children, Dr. Hugelmeyer said, adding that these drugs alter the brain’s chemistry because they’re so addictive.

The addiction can later lead to illegal drug abuse, such as heroin, because prescription drugs are expensive on the black market. Drugs can range from $10 a pill for Percocet to $80 a pill for Oxycontin. Heroin can be bought on the street for $5 a bag, Dr. Hugelmeyer said.

Riverhead police Lt. Rick Boden, who spoke on a panel of experts during the forum, said the police department has noticed an increase in driving while drugged offenses and neighborhood thefts, many of which are committed by addicted teens looking to steal from family and neighbors to fuel their addiction.

Senior assistant district attorney Ryan Hunter said the Suffolk DA’s office is prosecuting more forged drug prescriptions and drug sales due to the “epidemic.”

Parents can also take steps to dispose or secure drugs in their home. Locking prescription drugs can prevent abuse, she said. The Riverhead Police Department, Peconic Bay Medical Center, and the state police barracks in Riverside are holding a “drug take back initiative” Saturday for residents to hand in expired prescriptions.

The Riverhead police station at 210 Howell Avenue will accept prescription drug turn ins at any time, while the Peconic Bay Medical Center at 1300 Roanoke Avenue will accept old drugs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Riverside barracks at 234 Riverleigh Avenue will also take back drugs as part of the nation-wide initiative during the day Saturday.

But the biggest key to combating prescription drug abuse is to stop it before it starts, experts agreed. Parents should learn about the dangers of these drugs (using awareness sites for parents like and talk to their children about prescription drug abuse. Only a third of parents today talk to their kids about prescription drugs, Dr. Hugelmeyer said.

During the end of the question-and-answer session, a young woman approached the microphone.

She said her name was Erin, Philip’s girlfriend.

“It’s hard to believe that close to two years ago, at Philip’s funeral, when they asked if everyone could get up and say a few things about Phil I didn’t say anything because I was too high,” she said.

Now, Erin said, she’s been sober for over a year, and the audience cheered. She suggested that parents try to be understanding with their kids and not judge them.

“[Your children] have to be willing, and if you’re really aggressive about it, I know that when I wasn’t willing to talk to my mom,” she said, then smiled. “I’m just grateful that I have the relationship that I have with her now… I’m happy. I just celebrated my 21st birthday without a drink.”

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