CARY, N.C. — Drew Gintis loved wrestling, his mom explains. Really, really loved it. “It was his identity,” she says.
Marsha Gintis sits in a coffee shop outside Raleigh with the sun streaming in through the window behind her. She opens a manila folder and there is a written speech and a large photo of her son. This is so difficult for her to talk about, but she feels she must. There are lives at stake.
Drew started wrestling as a high school freshman and he lost nearly all of his matches. Yet by junior year he was a co-captain and was planning to wrestle in college. He went from 1-21 to 21-2. Marsha always cringed when she watched her only boy wrestle – there was one time he had his entire face wrapped from an injury – and she vividly remembers the shoulder injury that ended his career as a senior. A doctor prescribed Oxycodone.
The shoulder healed, but Drew didn’t.
“I knew he was having problems,” she says. “It was really, really tough. He started not going to school. He had gotten into every college he wanted to get into. But by the end of his senior year it was clear he wasn’t going to college.
“He had changed,” she continues. “He was angry.”
Drew Gintis, at age 18, had become addicted to painkillers. And like so many who have fallen victim to America’s opioid crisis, he started to take drastic measures to feel the way he felt on the meds. He raided cabinets, stole pills, and then it got even worse – heroin use. What was once a household’s excitement about college became a battle to save a son.
“Your whole family system just disintegrates,” Marsha says.
For months, the Gintis family tried to get Drew the help he needed. He went out to California for intervention. He entered rehab facilities. He was even in a homeless shelter for a time. Eventually he seemed to become a little more stable and he moved to Florida to live with a friend and take a job at a Petco. His boss, who he called “Mama Sue,” loved him. Drew sent pictures home of himself posing with exotic animals. It was a callback to the fun-loving kid Marsha remembered.
In July of 2015, his parents decided to drive his Civic down from North Carolina, along with his surfboard, to help him get more of a routine. They made plans to meet him for dinner. Drew didn’t show up.
The next morning, the police called. Marsha kept asking, “Is he OK? Is he OK? Just tell me he’s OK.”
The detective didn’t answer. Drew had overdosed on fentanyl. He was 21.
In 2015, more Americans died of drug overdoses than in any other year on record – 52,000 in that year alone. And more than two-thirds of those fatal overdoses came from some form of opioid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, as experts and families search for answers, there is growing evidence of an association between high school or college sports injuries and the prescription drugs that lead to addiction.
A 2013 study at the University of Michigan found “adolescent participants in high-injury sports had 50 percent higher odds of non-medical use of prescription opioids than adolescents who did not participate in these types of sports.” A more recent study found that 12th graders who played ice hockey had “substantially higher” odds of non-medical opioid or heroin use.
The authors of these studies are careful to note that there is no proven causation, only association.
“The take-home conclusion is that one of the things we have to be aware of is high contact sports lead to higher rate of injuries,” says the researcher, Philip Veliz. “Athletes are using opioids to manage pain and one side effect is using these medications to get high. These sports do have a higher rate of injuries, so parents need to be monitoring.”
On the day Marsha Gintis spoke about her son, Tessie Castillo was about 20 miles away at the North Carolina state legislature. She is the advocacy and communications coordinator for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. Her organization does everything from street outreach to lobbying, which is what she’s doing on this Wednesday. She estimates that roughly a quarter of the opioid addiction cases she hears about begin with an athletic injury.
“What we see a lot, over and over again, is people getting injured and they go to the doctor and they’re prescribed pills and that’s the start of their addiction,” Castillo says. “It’s very connected to sports.”
Castillo is pushing for the passage of the “STOP” act, which would limit over-prescription of painkillers and bolster the use of electronic monitoring of opioid prescriptions so doctors will know what a patient has been given elsewhere. She also wants more supply of the drug naloxone, which is used to reverse overdoses. The bill is progressing toward a vote in the coming days, and there is widespread backing.
North Carolina is hard-hit by the opioid crisis, and Wilmington – Michael Jordan’s hometown – was recently listed by one study as the American city with the highest rate of opioid abuse in the nation. The study found that more than half of all opioid prescriptions in the city are abused. Three other North Carolina cities were in the top 25.
That is just one report, but few dispute the severity of the problem.
“North Carolina doesn’t have a lot of treatment options,” Castillo says. “It’s not funded. Government doesn’t prioritize it. A lot of people don’t have insurance.”
The NFL’s problem with prescriptions and painkillers has been making headlines lately. But high school sports are far more populous and far less monitored. Parents are often unsure what to look for and how to respond to a developing addiction. Last year, a non-profit organization that oversees scholastic sports in New Jersey came out with guidelines for parents, and cited studies showing 83 percent of adolescents have unsupervised access to their own narcotic prescriptions.
Marsha Gintis went to the floor of the legislature recently to plead for the STOP act. “Like so many others who now struggle with substance-abuse disorders,” she said in her speech, “a prescription for opioids after suffering an athletic injury served as the catalyst for his downward spiral and ultimately his death.” She concluded by saying, “Addiction is a disease, it is not a moral failing, and it is time our legislation reflects this.”
The Gintis family had planned a fun trip to Florida that summer. Drew and his mom talked about maybe going to a comedy club. It would be nice to see him back on his surfboard and driving his Civic again. Instead, Drew’s parents drove the Civic and the surfboard back to North Carolina.
“Not a word was said,” Marsha remembers. “No music, no nothing. Not a word. Just shock.”
Over the past several months, she has tried to find the words to raise awareness, provide support and ask for changes. She wants high school coaches to be extra aware, as sometimes athletes with injuries get marginalized.
Since Drew died, Marsha Gintis has been to seven funerals for victims of opioid overdoses. She thinks maybe all of them, including the funeral for her son, could have been prevented.
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