Mary Ellen Peel still can’t believe her son Dustin is gone. Last November, paramedics in Mahanoy City could not revive him as he lay unconscious in an apartment.
“It broke my heart knowing he was on heroin,” Peel said.
For most of his adult life, Dustin Peel was a husband, a father, an outdoorsman, an athlete. But as middle age approached, Dustin was also a heroin addict.
“I just never, ever thought in a million years that he would do this,” Peel added.
Dustin was 41 when he died.
A Newswatch 16 investigation of counties in our area places the average age of a heroin overdose death at 37 over the past two years. In Lackawanna County, eight times as many people over 50 died of heroin overdoses than teenagers. In Lackawanna, Luzerne, and Schuylkill counties, as many people 60 and over died of heroin overdoses as teenagers.
In Schuylkill County, Dustin Peel’s downward spiral started with a workplace shoulder injury in 2012. Mary Ellen Peel said he quickly became addicted to prescription painkillers, then lost his wife, and his will to work.
“He got hired at a few places, never showed up, just got in a rut where all he wanted to do was lay around all day,” she said.
His mother does not know when Dustin crossed the line from painkillers to heroin, as have so many other middle-aged addicts.
Lycoming County Coroner Charles Kiessling says when doctors feel the pressure to cut back on prescription painkillers, middle-aged people addicted to pain pills often struggle.
“They go out into the streets and they’re looking for ways to manage their pain and consequently end up hooked on heroin,” said Kiessling.
Kiessling says they are “playing Russian roulette.”
A 62 year old recovering addict from Columbia County is in rehab and asked not to be identified. He has been clean for two years. Almost 20-years ago, a construction accident left him unable to work.
“I just have a mess of back problems,” he said.
He became hooked on painkillers. Soon he took a month’s worth of prescription pills in less than two weeks.
“When I ran out, who wants to go through withdrawal? Heroin’s so prevalent.”
So prevalent he traded oxycodone for heroin.
“Heroin works better for pain than the oxycodone does.”
He was 57 and was hooked on heroin until he was 60. Quitting last year helped him avoid the fate of Dustin Peel.
“We have to go on. We can’t live like this. We can’t live like we should have done this or we should have done that,” Mary Ellen Peel said.
Peel is frustrated. She applauds efforts to warn teens of heroin’s dangers but wonders how she can reach middle-aged addicts like her son. She never knew he used heroin until the morning a deputy coroner told her Dustin was dead.
“I could understand the pain pills. I could, but when he said he suspects a heroin overdose, and I said, ‘How?’ He said, ‘There’s a suitcase full of empty heroin packets upstairs.’'
Drug treatment experts expect the average age of heroin overdose deaths to remain in the 30s and 40s as long as it remains hard to break the addiction of pain pills and as long as heroin remains cheap.