Heart infections due to drug abuse expected to rise

Original: Son who struggled with drug addiction develops heart infection

Sharron Conlin is a mother with a difficult story to share.

"This is tough," said Conlin. "No mother, no family wants to go through this."

She wants to tell you about her son, Jeremy.

"He had the same dreams and hopes that everyone does," said Conlin. "He wanted to go to a trade school and get a better job. He wanted to get married and have children."

By the time he was 20, Jeremy was on a combination of Xanax and meth -- every day. His mom says it was his escape from pain, discomfort, money, and his job.

"He'd take three steps forward and two steps back. The drugs were just tugging on him and tugging on him," Conlin described with tears in her eyes.

The drugs pulled Jeremy so low that he developed an infection in his heart.

"The needle by nature of passing through the dirty skin takes the bacteria on the skin into the veins, and then the bacteria travels onto the heart," said Dr. Mark Pool, cardiologist at Texas Health Dallas.

It's a condition called endocarditis. Doctors across the country are noting its significant rise among young people because of injected drug use.

Researchers from Tufts University report 3,578 cases in 2000 -- and 8,530 by 2016.

"We see it pretty much on a weekly basis," said Dr. Pool, who added that without an operation to replace infected heart valves, patients wouldn't survive.

"You can’t fix a valve like that," said Dr. Pool. "Once it’s destroyed and infected, you have to take out the infected part and put the brand new valve in there that has no infection."

Jeremy had no choice. He needed the operation.

Surgeons replaced two of Jeremy's heart valves.

"A very frank conversation must take place with the patient and the family to say you cannot ever go back to this drug abuse, because you’re at a very high risk of infecting the new valve," explained Dr. Pool.

Aside from overdose, infections are one of the top health consequences of opioid abuse along with HIV, Hepatitis C and neonatal abstinence syndrome, according to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

"And that’s how we know this problem continues to grow," said Dr. Pool.

Within three years of his first surgery, and despite rehab and family support, Jeremy needed a second operation, doctors said, because of continued drug use. Conlin said she believes the infection wasn't entirely cleared after the first operation.

Pool, who did not perform Jeremy's first surgery, did agree to operate on him the second time, but not all cardiologists would agree to it.

"Every time we go back is more difficult because of the scarring and the nature of the re-do operation," explained Dr. Pool. "We can't just keep doing this over and over again. It's not fair to the other patients who may need some resources from the hospital."

Jeremy spent 15 days on life support after his second surgery, but never woke. He was just 31 years old.

"They did absolutely everything they could do. Everything they could do," said Conlin. "But it just didn’t help. I miss his presence so much. I miss his warmth, his sensitivity to everyone else’s needs. I miss his smile."

Conlin's words trailed off. She chose to share her son's smile -- and his struggle with opioids, not just half of his story, which is often what parents of addicts agree to share.

"A lot of parents are in total denial," said Conlin. "They're embarrassed, they think it's embarrassing to have a child that has an addiction."

Conlin said her son's opioid addiction was an illness that requires attention from policy makers, support from the medical community and love without judgment.

"Sometimes it's so much easier to walk into your room and say, 'I don't want to deal with this.' And I can't say I haven't done that, but it's all come to this," said Conlin.

For help with opioid addiction, here are some resources:

Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation

Addiction Treatment Programs

Opiate Drug Detox Treatment Centers

© 2017 WFAA-TV


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