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Heroin nightmare: Michael McCarthy's story

Getting help: Intervention was $5K; treatment was $25K

FALMOUTH, Maine – The night after David died, Michael slept in that same bed.

In the morning, his mother knocked on the door, seeking help planning David's funeral. No answer.

She stepped inside and saw her son lying rigid, his arms above his head. His breathing was labored, raspy. She screamed.

HOW DAVID DIED

From the countryside of New England to the cities of the Midwest, the most deadly epidemic of heroin use in half a century is tearing at the fabric of American life.

Part 1: David McCarthy's story

Part 2: 'The angel of death'

Part 3: Starting with Oxys

Part 4: 'He decided not to be'

Part 5: Enabling and denial

Part 6: Michael's story

Part 7: No more secrets

Kevin called 911, again. A physician who was training ambulance personnel nearby responded and administered Narcan, which reverses the effects of an overdose. Portland's public health department offers addicts free Narcan kits, but the city is not permitted to use federal or state money for Narcan; its supply is privately donated.

Police found a heroin packet in Michael's room. He spent the rest of the day in intensive care, his survival in doubt. The family camped out in the hospital, making calls about David's funeral while they awaited word of Michael's fate.

On the morning after David died, Michael had asked a friend, "Wouldn't it just be easier to die young and not have to see your loved ones die?"

That night, Michael had called his old high school friend and dealer, the same man David had been to see two nights earlier.

"Do you really want that stuff?" the dealer asked. "It's the same stuff that killed David."

The stuff was heroin cut with fentanyl, an opiate that in its legal, prescription form is used to treat post-surgery pain.

"People think they're using heroin and it turns out to be fentanyl," said Jamie Guerrette, the assistant attorney general in Maine who runs the state's drug task force. "We're making seizures where users and even sellers believe it's heroin and it's actually a mix that's potentially 30 to 50 times more potent."

Fentanyl was found in 11 of Maine's 57 heroin overdose deaths last year, according to Marcella Sorg, an epidemiologist who is a consultant to the state on drug issues. In its powdery, synthetic, illegal form, fentanyl has been showing up in overdoses around the country.

When addicts unwittingly ingest heroin laced with fentanyl, they consume a vastly more intense dose than they had anticipated. Heroin used to reach Maine in single-dose "tickets;" now, the drug primarily arrives in "fingers," 10-gram plastic-wrapped cylinders that are "cut," or diluted, locally.

Michael didn't believe the heroin would hurt him because he never shot up; he thought snorting was somehow safer. He used it that night, by himself.

Three days after Michael got out of the hospital — one day after David's funeral — Kevin and Nancy, two other relatives, and four of Michael's friends surrounded him and read letters they'd written.

Within a minute, Michael agreed to be taken to rehab. Danzig, the counselor, took the bag they'd packed and flew Michael to a Florida trauma center. He stayed in rehab for two months. At the end of the program, he asked to stay another month.

HOW DAVID DIED: Read part 7 of the series

The intervention cost $5,000; the treatment, $25,000. Insurance covered none of it.

Six months later, so far, so good, his family says.

"I realize I'm grasping at straws," Kevin said, "but we like to think David saved Michael's life."

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