Searching for solutions: Revisiting Austin, Indiana

Two years ago Austin, Indiana - a relatively small town in Scott County - experienced an outbreak in Hepatitis C and HIV cases. Drug users were injecting themselves with dirty needles then passing them to others.More than 200 new HIV cases have been conf

AUSTIN, Ind. (WHAS11) -- The city of Austin, Indiana promotes its sports and academic achievements on its welcome sign.  Polly Polly's four sons were the athletic type playing all the sports. However, a health scare became an unwelcome visitor years ago.

"You don't have your kids whenever they're in full blown addiction," Polly told WHAS11.

Polly's son Derek would become dependent on prescription drugs in 2010. She noticed the signs – depression, loss of a job and a relationship.  Derek went to rehab and later enrolled in college.  He never graduated, dying in a car crash in 2012. Polly held on to the guilt that somehow her parenting lead him to use drugs.

"We need to help the people instead of turning a blind eye," she said.

Polly's oldest son Tyler also became addicted to prescription pills in high school.  He stopped cold turkey before joining the military, but after his brother's death, Polly says Tyler began using.  He even overdosed on heroin while stationed in Alaska.  "They found him in the barracks and gave him NARCAN and brought him back," she explained.

A dose of fentanyl several years later would prove fatal.  Polly says Tyler snorted it and died instantly at a rehab facility.  "He laid there five hours before they found him," she said.

Tyler leaves behind a son, an adopted daughter and a wife whom he married 11 days before he died in 2015.  "I already lost two kids, it's like I didn't think it could get any worse," she said.

Help would come from the Scott County Health Department and Dr. William Cooke.  Austin began experiencing an outbreak of Hepatitis C and HIV cases the year of Tyler's death brought on by the use of dirty needles that were passed from person to person.

"When this hit, it was a no-brainer to respond to the needs to of our community," Dr. Cooke said. He began treating and testing patients immediately.  The city, with the population of about 4,300, currently has 217 confirmed cases of HIV.

"Our first conversations centered around the fact there is a lot of hope that HIV is treatable," he said.

Last summer, Polly walked in on her son Scottie.  She found him shooting up drugs in his bathroom.  He collapsed by the toilet with the needle stuck in his arm.  "He instantly turned a blueish gray color.  He was dead," Polly described. 

Paramedics revived him by using NARCAN.  None of Polly's sons would test positive for Hepatitis C or HIV, but since the outbreak in 2015, Dr. Cooke would treat 150 patients. The treatment includes free Hepatitis C and HIV testing, a women's health program with vaccines for babies, diabetes and rheumatology care and wellness exams

Dr. Cooke says that has lead the city treat to HIV to the level the virus can't be detected in the bloodstream of nearly three-fourths of those who tested positive.  "Nationally, it's 25 to 50 percent. So, being at 73 percent we're well above the national average just two years into this," he told WHAS11.

Dr. Cooke believes Austin will continue to see success without the stigma of Hepatitis C and HIV.  "Austin's story isn't written. Austin's story is going to be about a place that overcame a lot of adversity.  I know the people from Austin.  I know the community. I know how strong the community is and how strong the people are."

For Polly, her strength comes from teaching others about the dangers of drugs as she reflects on the lives lost to them.  "Someday I am going to see them again.  This can't be the end.  If this is the end, I'm living in hell," she said. 

Polly's family is trying to organize a fundraiser to help pay for Tyler's headstone.  You can make donations in honor of David Tyler Combs to Collins Funeral Home at 465 West McClain Scottsburg, IN 47170.  You can also call (812) 752-3232.

The Texas Roadhouse in Clarksville, Indiana is also holding a fundraiser on June 25.  From 1-7 p.m., anyone who mentions Tyler, 10% of their purchase goes toward the purchase of the headstone. 

There will also be a poker run in honor of Tyler on June 8.  Visit the Poker Run for veteran Tyler Combs Facebook page for more information.

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