Plymouth Record-Enterprise: Local parent shares her family's story of loss with Congress
HOLDERNESS — At the invitation of Congresswoman Ann McLane Kuster, Dr. Susan Messinger of Holderness recently traveled to Washington, D.C., where on May 18, she appeared before Congress to address a topic that is close to her heart and hopefully make a difference for others.
It was Oct. 23, 2014 when Messinger lost her son Carl to a fentanyl overdose. It was during a week when three of six other overdose victims also passed away as the potent painkiller, 50 times more powerful than heroin, hit the streets of New Hampshire.
Carl, she said, was clean at the time, having been through treatment, but a lapse in the medical field started his cravings all over again and resulted in his death.
"He got sick with a really bad cold and went to the doctor. He didn't see his regular doctor that day, though, and the physician he did see wasn't aware that he was a recovering addict," Messinger said. "The doctor ended up giving him a cough syrup containing codeine, and that activated a part of his brain that started the cravings all over again."
Had she known that the cough syrup contained codeine, she said would not have given it to him, but labeling from the pharmacy where she picked it up did not indicate that ingredient.
"By law, the larger container the pharmacy gets has to be labeled, but not the smaller bottles they dispense it in," Messinger said.
Since that tragic day more than a year and a half ago, she has become an advocate for medical records to disclose a patient's addictions and for pharmacies to provide accurate labeling for all medications prescribed.
When Kuster learned of what had happened to Carl, she reached out to Messinger and asked her to share her compelling story with Congress as Kuster herself fights for more stringent laws and better funding to battle the opioid crisis.
Along with 150 other families from all across the nation, Messinger agreed to travel to the Capitol to make her case.
"Sue put a face to this with her son Carl and I commend her for the courage and strength with which she brought her story to Congress," said Kuster.
Among 18 bipartisan bills Kuster is now working on is "Carl's Law," which will require pharmacists to label any opiate-related medications, including narcotic cough syrups, so tragedies such as his won't happen again.
Yet another is "Jessie's Law," a bill. That bill, named for another victim of the opioid crisis, will require that, with patient consent, substance abuse issues be contained in medical records. In that way physicians can be made aware of that history before they prescribe medications that could prove to be harmful in recovery.
Through her efforts with fellow New Hampshire Congressman Frank Guinta and Senators Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen, Kuster said the Senate's CARA legislation (the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act) and the House's 18 bills surrounding the war on addiction have now been combined as CARA Plus. At the CADY Prevention Summit held in Plymouth on May 27, she said a Committee of Congress is now putting finishing touches to the package and hope to present it to Pres. Obama in the next few weeks for his signature. Included in it is a request for $600 million to combat the nation's heroin epidemic.
Messinger said she was grateful for the reception she received in Washington and will continue her efforts locally to educate others on how this epidemic touches people from all walks of life.
Carl, she said, was a great young man who had returned home after completing his Bachelors degree then decided he wanted to go on to dental school. In the meantime he began taking advanced chemistry classes at Plymouth State University to apply toward his next level of education.
Unbeknownst to his family, he was introduced at that time to heroin, which he later told them was the "drug of choice" at PSU. Before he knew it, he was hooked.
"Some people can still be functioning members of society while using heroin," Messinger said. "We didn't even know he was using it for a year but as soon as we found out we got him the help he needed that day."
It was only one month later however when the seemingly innocent cough prescription he received drove him to take one more fatal dose of heroin.
The effects of his death are something the family will always deal with but they have found some solace in reaching out to help other families and addicts in hopes of saving lives.
One battle they all face is the stigmas surrounding substance addiction, which can keep it behind closed doors.
Messinger said her family did the same when they first learned of Carl's situation but will never stop talking about it now in their efforts to make others realize the need to come out from the shadows to seek the help and support they need.
Every 90 days, she and her husband John visit Plymouth House, where they remind those receiving treatment there that they need to stay with it, not only for themselves but their loved ones as well.
"They're not an island. What they're doing affects everyone around them," she said.
Besides telling Carl's story whenever they feel it will be helpful, the family has also done more to honor his life.
The Messingers' younger son attended New Hampton School, graduating in May, where he was interested in their theatrical program. To keep Carl's memory alive, the family donated the money he left behind to that program. They also made a second donation to the Farnum Center North treatment facility in Franklin, where a treatment room now bears his name.