Data: More likely to die from a drug overdose in Tri-Cities, than other areas of the state

TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL) – Rhonda Coffey can’t help but smile when she reflects on her son’s childhood. The memories take her back to a happier time.

“He was so happy,” she said of her son David. ‘He was funny. He loved to make people laugh.”


It doesn’t take long for her to realize there’s a reason she rarely pulls out pictures of David anymore.

“It’s too painful really,” his mother said.

Although David’s first 18 years were full of joy, his last 15 were marked by low self-esteem, mental illness and a long, dark battle with addiction. That addiction is what killed him on July 26th.

“I think it’s really hit me this past week, all week, that it’s real,” his mother said.

Hundreds of other families in Northeast Tennessee live in that same painful reality. The region’s substance abuse problem has killed 580 people in the region in just a five-year period between 2009 and 2014, according to the most recent Tennessee Department of Health data. The data shows overdose deaths reached all-time highs in 2014 both statewide and locally.

Not only that, the data shows the death rate in Northeast Tennessee is well above the state average and the numbers keep going up.

The death rate per 100,000 people in Tennessee in 2014 was 19.3.

In Sullivan County, the rate was 28, followed by 27.9 in Unicoi County, 27.8 in Greene County, 22.4 in Johnson County, 19.8 in Washington County and 19.4 in Hawkins County.

Carter County’s death rate of 17.6 per 100,000 people is the only one below the state average.

A yearlong Community Watchdog analysis of that data revealed in Northeast Tennessee the average overdose victim is a 40-year-old white man who most likely lives in Sullivan, Washington or Greene counties.

The Department of Health’s numbers show nearly twice as many people died in Washington and Sullivan counties, with 25 in Washington and 44 in Sullivan, in 2014 compared to 2009. And the kinds of people who are dying are not the ones you might expect.

“Addiction is everywhere,” Insight Alliance Director Jennifer Berven said. “It’s all walks of life. It’s all professional levels. It’s all socioeconomic levels.”

Berven runs Insight Alliance, which is a coalition that works to prevent addiction and eliminate the stigma associated with it. She says many of the overdose victims, just like Coffey, are educated and have jobs. Berven says the people who are dying are not bad people.

“They’re sick people trying to get well,” she said.

Dr. Kenneth Ferslew is seeing the problem every day at work. He’s the toxicology director for the William L. Jenkins Forensic Center at East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine. Every autopsy in the region goes through the center.

“We’re losing productive people in our society and it’s costing us to do that, not only in the medication and in treating them, but also the loss, personal and societal,” Dr. Ferslew said.

Dr. Ferslew’s team of forensic toxicologists runs tests to see what role, if any, drugs play in a person’s death. These days he says he’s busier than ever and he says that is in large part due to painkillers. He says 25 years ago those cases were rare.

“We would get maybe five, six opiate deaths a year,” Dr. Ferslew said. “We’re getting at least that many cases every week now.”

He says it’s not just painkillers. According to Dr. Ferslew, more and more people are mixing those opiates with other drugs, often times muscle relaxers. On the day we visited he said every one of his cases involved multiple drugs. In addition to painkillers and muscle relaxers, the forensic pathologist says combinations of other prescription drugs are also a leading cause of overdose deaths.

So what can people do to help? While lawmakers and medical experts work to try and solve this complex statewide problem the Tennessee Department of Health is urging people to consider a short-term solution. Northeast Regional Health Department Medical Director Dr. David Kirschke says a drug called naloxone is already saving lives. Naloxone comes in the form of a nasal spray or injection.

“If you stop breathing this can actually almost instantly reverse it,” Dr. Kirschke said. “Typically, within two minutes it will take effect.”

Since opiate overdoses tend to stop people’s breathing, Dr. Kirschke says anyone who is on painkillers or knows someone using opiates should talk to his or her doctor and request a prescription.

“EMS and emergency departments are using it every day for opioid overdoses, but now we have the ability to have it in the hands of family members and friends that are at risk of opioid overdoses,” he said.

Neither David Coffey nor the people he was with had naloxone on the day he died.

“That drug could have saved his life,” his mother said.

Instead, David’s ashes sit in his mother’s living room below a picture memorializing him. There were glimmers of hope during David’s battle with addiction. At one point his mother says he was sober for two years. She says he was clean again just weeks before his death. He had also survived overdoses before, but never one like this.

“It was a combination of heroin, crystal meth and (diet pills),” Rhonda Coffey said.

David loved to help other people, so his heartbroken mother is now determined to carry on his legacy.

“If you’re sitting at home and you think that, ‘This will not affect my child,’ you are so wrong,” she said. “You are so wrong. You can do everything right and it can still affect your child.”

Location Deaths from 2009-2014
Sullivan 173
Washington 122
Greene 96
Hawkins 89
Carter 61
Unicoi 23
Johnson 16

Source:  Tennessee Department of Health

Location 2014 Death Rate per 100,000 people
Sullivan 28
Unicoi 27.9
Greene 27.8
Johnson 22.4
Washington 19.8
Hawkins 19.4
Tennessee 19.3
Carter 17.6

Source:  Tennessee Department of Health

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