Veterans Vulnerable To Drug Overdoses - NBC4: Columbus, Ohio News, Weather, and Sports (WCMH-TV)

Veterans Vulnerable To Drug Overdoses

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Scott McDonald didn't talk much about his pain. In 2011, he was discharged from the Army after 15 years of service as a crew chief on black hawk helicopters. Four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan left him with back pain, foot pain, migraine headaches and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

When he returned to Ohio, he was treated by doctors at the Veterans Administration Clinic in Columbus. Heather McDonald says, at one point, her husband was taking 15 different pills a day.

On September 13, 2012, McDonald died of what the coroner determined to be an accidental overmedication of anti-depressants and pain medications.

McDonald's death fits with an alarming statistic regarding veterans. NBC4 looked at Ohio death certificates for deaths from 2009 through 2011 and found that 390 veterans died as a result of unintentional drug overdoses.

According to Ohio Department of Health statistics, the total number of unintentional prescription drug overdose deaths in Ohio more than tripled between 2001 and 2011.

For veterans, the news gets worse. A study, funded partly by the Veterans Health Administration, found veterans dying of accidental drug overdoses at a rate nearly double that of the general population.

Heather McDonald says she doesn't know exactly the conversations that took place between her husband and his doctors at the VA. His last appointment was September 12, 2011. McDonald says she got home from work late that night and found her husband asleep on the sofa. She says his breathing seemed labored.

"I asked him if he took too much," McDonald said. "I said, 'You didn't take too many pills did you?' and he said I took what they told me to take," McDonald said. "Every time he would go they would either up his medication or add something new or take something away and I just figured this was the slight side effect of it. I never thought he was overdosing and dying right in front of me."

McDonald says in his last appointment, the VA doctor prescribed Percocet - a stronger medication than the Vicodin he'd been taking. The directions said "take one tablet by mouth every twelve hours as needed (not to exceed acetaminophen 3000MG per 24 hours)." The coroner's investigator wrote in his report "with these directions it appears that he could actually take nine of these in a 24 hour period."...."perhaps he thought he could take nine to relieve the pain."

VA primary care physician, Dr Edward Bope, says the treatment of soldiers suffering with physical and emotional pain sometimes walks a fine line.

"We're trying to get people where we can relieve their physical pain to a degree that they're less apt to grab extra pills," Bope said.

Bope says prescription drug issues with veterans just mirror society. He says the VA creates an individualized plan for each patient and attempts to shift patients away from short-acting opiates that treat pain for four to six hours in favor of long-acting opiates such as methadone and slow-release patches.

Bope says the VA's comprehensive approach with veterans has been successful.

"A lot of veterans say they've had the best pain relief they've had in 10 years," Bope said.

VA pain physician Dr. Mounir Sanhaji says the treatment has shifted from "just dealing with the pain to improving quality of life." But, he adds, that can be a real challenge with some patients.

"Sometimes it's walking on thin ice trying to balance between - we need to keep this guy sane but we also have to provide some pain relief and our job as providers is to try to find a safe way of healing both – but it's challenging," Sanhaji said.

Dr. Sanhaji says communication between VA doctors and with patients is vital.

Heather McDonald is convinced there was a lack of communication in her husband's case.

"I think if someone had looked at him in the face and said 'you cannot take Percocet the same way as a Vicodin, we wouldn't be having this conversation." McDonald said. "I think soldiers need to be better educated about what these powerful drugs do that they hand out to our veterans, our husbands, our fathers."

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