OxyContin’s early poster children: Where are they now?

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

More than a decade into America’s new age of opiates, the long-term effects of the ubiquitous prescription painkillers are starting to be felt on a real, measurable scale. As part of an evolving investigation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and MedPage Today, John Fauber and Ellen Gabler drive this home by following up on seven patients – and one physician – featured in an early promotional video for OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma.

Originally conceived as a teaching aid, the video was ultimately used in a marketing campaign in which Purdue sent it to about 15,000 doctors. A Purdue subsidiary has since paid $634 million in penalties for misbranding OxyContin in its various promotional campaigns but, as the reporters found, the patients who used the drug sometimes paid an even steeper price, as demonstrated by the subsequent lives of the seven “poster children” featured in that video. I’ll let Fauber and Gabler take it from here.

The subjects who spoke glowingly of their experiences with OxyContin in the video 14 years ago offer a case history of sorts.

Two of the seven patients were active opioid abusers when they died. A third became addicted, suffered greatly, and quit after realizing she was headed for an overdose. Three patients still say the drug helped them cope with their pain and improved their quality of life. A seventh patient declined to answer questions.

The doctor who enlisted his patients for the video and played a starring role, now says some of the statements went too far.

Within this broad sketch, the reporters find much room for story and nuance, touching upon everything from the impact of the drug on patients with a history of addiction to the legitimate success stories of patients who had their lives changed by the powerful narcotic. It’s a well-drawn, big-picture portrait of the swath opiates have cut through modern American, told through the lens of a unique and fascinating narrative device.

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