Flattery

Mount Vernon resident Don Flattery stands with his son, Kevin, and the rest of their family in 2010 to celebrate Kevin’s graduation from the University of Virginia. Kevin died from an overdose from prescription opioid drugs in 2015.

Kevin Flattery’s life seemed promising. A native of Alexandria, Flattery graduated from the University of Virginia in 2010 and went to Hollywood, Calif. in the hopes of starting a career in filmmaking.

Then, however, he began struggling with panic attacks, stress and depression. He returned home to his family in Mount Vernon in 2013 as he sought treatment for addiction after he started self-medicating with the painkilling drug Oxycontin.

On Labor Day weekend in 2014, Kevin Flattery died from an overdose of prescription opioid drugs. He was 26 years old.

Since Kevin’s unexpected death, his father, Don Flattery, has been fighting to bring attention to the issue of opioid addiction and overdose. His advocacy work garnered the attention of Senator Tim Kaine and earned him an invitation to President Obama’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday.

“I’m honored to be selected, and I think it’s a nice opportunity to continue to get the message out that this is a priority,” Don Flattery said. “It takes a lot of citizen attention, advocacy group attention and impacted family members’ attention to keep our policymakers focused on this public health crisis.”

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there were nearly 29,500 deaths related to opiates in the U.S. in 2014, with approximately two-thirds of those fatalities attributable to prescription drugs and the remaining one-third due to heroin.

Virginia saw 479 reported deaths related to prescription opioids and 239 deaths connected to heroin in 2014. According to the Fairfax County government website, the number of people in Fairfax County who died from heroin overdose doubled from 2013 to 2014.

Flattery says addressing opioid drug addiction is particularly challenging because many people are unaware that prescription opioids, which are drugs that relieve pain like Oxycontin and morphine, are derived from the same poppy plant that’s used to make heroin, giving them the same addictive quality.

They can also be just as deadly if overused, with overdose deaths from prescribed opioids and heroin tripling since 1999.

“My family learned a tragic lesson about a really widely available kind of pain relief that’s overused in this country,” Flattery said, noting that prescriptions for opioids have increased fourfold over the past decade.

Flattery was appointed by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to the Governor’s Task Force on Prescription Drug and Heroin Abuse in 2014. He was the only task force appointee who was the family member of a drug abuse victim.

His role as a citizens’ advocate brought him to the attention of Senator Kaine, who got involved in the issue of drug addiction when he was first elected in 2013 and talked to constituents throughout Virginia who were concerned about heroin and opioids.

Kaine recently sponsored a bill with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin that would establish guidelines for when doctors should prescribe opioids to patients and that would give people an automatic prescription of a drug called Naloxone if they’re given an opioid prescription.

Naloxone is a drug that can be used in emergencies to treat narcotic overdoses, and according to Kaine, it has saved about 25,000 people from overdoses since the late 1990s. It’s currently used by first responders and healthcare professionals, but Kaine’s bill would allow people to administer it themselves or on a friend or family member.

Kaine says that Flattery’s dedication to raising awareness about opioid addiction is what made him decide to invite the Mount Vernon resident as his guest to the State of the Union address.

“He’s taken this very painful situation…but instead of retreating into himself with the pain he’s experienced, he’s trying to spread the word to family, friends and others,” Kaine said.

Both Kaine and Flattery hoped that President Obama would directly address the country’s opioid and heroin epidemic in his address.

Obama previously discussed heroin and prescription drug abuse in October when he announced plans to increase access to drug treatment and expand the training of doctors who administer painkillers. He also proposed $133 million in spending to curb overprescribing of opioids, increase the amount of overdose data collected and expand access to Naloxone.

According to Flattery, overprescribing is one of the main factors behind the current epidemic, resulting from efforts by pharmaceutical companies in the 1990s to expand the market for painkillers, which were previously mostly given to patients who had terminal illnesses or were recovering from surgery or injuries like broken bones.

One of those companies, Purdue Pharma, which markets OxyContin, paid $600 million in fines to the federal government in 2007 to settle criminal and civil charges that it had misbranded the drug and downplayed its potential for abuse by patients.

“[The industry that produces opioid drugs is] very powerful. They’re very influential, and they’re going to protect their business prerogatives to market and sell prescription drugs,” Flattery said.

However, he also added that it’s important for people not to give up if they know someone who has become addicted to drugs, and he wants to keep sharing his son’s story to emphasize that those who get addicted to drugs or die from them are people, not just statistics.

“There are so many families that are touched by addiction, many of them somewhat fearful to admit it or acknowledge it, and that’s because for far too long, we’ve stigmatized it,” Flattery said. “It’s critically important to keep the public aware that these people are here. These people are special. These people are tragically removed from our midst.”

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