Son's Rx drug death moves York man to advocate for safety
As Phil Bauer talks about his youngest son, his dark eyes are unblinking. They show a mix of love and pain.
Bauer's West Manchester Township home is covered in pictures of Mark, forever an 18-year-old. He's an attractive boy, with the same brown eyes as his dad.
Mark started lifting weights when he was 11 and eventually worked his way up to bench-pressing 400 pounds, Bauer said. He was introverted, funny and strong, and he shared a love for basketball with his dad. No-foul games on the driveway basketball court were their way of hugging, Bauer said.
In May 2004, one week before Mark was to graduate from West York Area High School, he didn't wake up. The court on the driveway became a memorial, and Bauer's life as he knew it was over.
"I could almost feel him there. I really could," said Bauer, 65. "It's still not OK without him."
Pills: On the morning Mark died, Bauer heard his wife scream.
"It's Mark," he remembers her saying. "I can't get him up."
A toxicology report released three months later showed amounts of oxycodone, acetaminophen, morphine and amphetamines — not an illegal drug among them, Bauer said.
He said a bag of loose pills near Mark's body contained prescription opioids: Percocet, which is oxycodone and acetaminophen, and Avinza, morphine.
"My response was, 'Thank God he didn't die from drugs,'" he said.
That line of thinking was before Bauer became a national advocate for prescription drug safety.
"If you take prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes, you're not taking medicine. You're doing drugs," he said.
"It is just as dangerous, just as deadly as street drugs when abused."
Advocacy: Was Mark hurting or happy? Bauer can't say for sure, but he knew the signs of addiction, and nothing suggested his son had an ongoing problem.
Within a few months of his death, Mark struggled with some back pain and wrist issues, he said.
There were a couple of incidents where Mark was caught with marijuana and beer in his teenage years, but nothing suggesting an addiction problem, Bauer said.
"Knowing the signs now, we still can't see that they were there," he said.
Bauer said he speaks across the country for two reasons: to keep Mark with him and to help other people avoid his fate.
"I started talking about prescription drug abuse before it was en vogue, before it was highly publicized," he said.
Before Mark died, Bauer said, he hated to talk in front of people.
Now, with what he calls "the power of Mark," he doesn't care what people think of him — and he's spoken to up to 700 people at a time.
"It is the devastation of losing a child that, unless you've lost a child, no one can understand that," Bauer said.
"That's what drives me."
Heroin link: Heroin and prescription opioids are not two separate issues, Bauer said. Both are synthetic opium, and with decreased access to prescriptions, people are turning to heroin, which is cheaper, he said.
One study shows 77 percent of those reporting past-year use of both heroin and nonmedical prescription pain relievers started using the prescription drugs before heroin, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Center for Behavioral Health and Statistics and Quality.
Bauer said he was naive about prescription drug abuse — when talking about drugs with his two sons, he never mentioned them, he said.
"I had no clue that prescriptions were being abused and were being used for nonmedical purposes," Bauer said.
Many people have the perception that prescription drugs are safer than illegal drugs, but they're not, he said.
"It's sad. I've been throughout the country, 30 counties in Pennsylvania, and some parents are still almost as naive as I was," Bauer said. "And it's a shame, because it's not OK."
Legislation: With more focus on the issue, Pennsylvania passed several pieces of legislation in 2014.
"Pennsylvania is very slow with this," Bauer said. "Other states have done this quickly."
To combat "doctor shopping," former Gov. Tom Corbett on Oct. 27 signed a new law that will create a database of prescribed drugs within the state Department of Health. Bauer and his wife, Cookie, were invited to the bill signing.
"I think the prescription drug monitoring law is helping immensely" and appropriately focuses on both patients and prescribers, he said.
About a month before that, Corbett signed a bill that gives good Samaritan immunity to people who report overdoses and provides trained emergency responders with access to naloxone, a life-saving treatment that can revive someone who has overdosed on heroin or another opioid.
Although Bauer said he thinks the measure is "already saving lives in Pennsylvania," he also said we still have more work to do.
To further combat the epidemic, we must get more help — in the form of treatment or counseling, for example — to those addicted to heroin or prescription opioids, Bauer said.
"If we don't treat the people who are already on the path, we're just trading one drug for another," he said.
— Reach Mollie Durkin at firstname.lastname@example.org.