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Stories Of The Decade: The Opioid Epidemic


As this decade winds down, we're looking back on some of the biggest stories from the past 10 years. Today, we're focusing on the opioid crisis.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is a major public health problem, and it's getting worse rapidly.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So this crisis is taking lives. It's destroying families, shattering communities all across the country.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We know that Purdue Pharma and its owners, the billionaire Sackler family, are now at the center of hundreds of lawsuits over the company's role in the opioid crisis.

MARTIN: A couple of years ago, NPR's Yuki Noguchi traveled to Indiana to report on how the crisis was affecting businesses there. In the course of reporting on that, Yuki was struck by how far-reaching the effects of opioid addiction have become. And then the story became personal when she met a young woman named Katy Sexton.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: I met Katy in the summer of 2017. I was in Muncie. I was working on a story about people who were dropping out of the workforce because of addiction. And during that trip, I went to a church which hosts, like, a Thursday night recovery meeting. There were lots of people there recovering from opioid addiction, and Katy was among them.


KATY SEXTON: I was really ashamed for a while because I had gathered more clean time under my belt than I had had since I was 12 years old. And that was really an improvement for me. I was so happy to be able to say that. And I messed up. But part of recovery is relapse, and you just - at the end of the day, you can't beat yourself up over it. And I'm just - I'm happy. I'm happy that I'm here. I'm happy that I'm alive because there's been too many close calls in my life.

NOGUCHI: You know, the part of the tape that's missing there is where she told me that seven out of her 10 high school friends had passed away from opioid addiction. And so...


NOGUCHI: She - that's why she said she considered herself, you know, happy and lucky. And when I met her, I felt very much like she was at a major crossroad in her life. You know, she was at that point 30 days sober, which, you know, is sort of a delicate time in recovery. And she had been arrested but was trying to hang onto this nursing assistant's license that she had had for years. She was 23 years old. She'd been a straight-A student in high school and had a college scholarship.

So I became personally invested, I guess, in Katy's story. I mean, I felt like if there's hope for this community - you know, if Katy, who has so much going for her, makes it, then maybe this community can sort of see its way through. And at the time, you know, that I talked to her, she was talking about getting a shot - a new kind of drug at the time called Vivitrol to control her cravings. And I urged her to get that shot. And I told her, you know, I'm going to come back to Muncie, and I want to talk to you again.

And I got her cellphone number, and I texted her, and we talked about the Vivitrol shot. And we exchanged texts until she, you know, stopped texting back. And it was a few weeks after that that her mother replied back telling me that Katy had died on Halloween.

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness. Well, let's hear some of your story. Will you just, you know, help us get started?

NOGUCHI: Well, yeah. I mean, I knew I needed to return to Muncie as I had planned to. Another woman I had interviewed had actually also fallen into a coma from an overdose around the same time, and I wanted to see her and her mother in the hospital. And I also wanted to pay my respects to Katy's parents.

And as fresh and as raw as things still were for them - I mean, they had told me that they never actually even talked about what happened that day - you know, remarkably and courageously, they let me into their home, and they let me into their grief. And this is our conversation.


NOGUCHI: The Sextons say they haven't put words to what happened since that day. Between sobs, Melissa recounts returning from the store and making coffee, then finding Katy slumped in her bed.

MELISSA SEXTON: And I got closer, and I realized. And so I immediately started CPR and calling 911.

NOGUCHI: Her parents say Katy had been trying to fill a prescription for medication to blunt the drug cravings, but insurance required a waiting period. Melissa Sexton says she has not visited Katy's room but occupies herself collecting mementos.

M SEXTON: This is one of my Katy boxes. I've just put stuff together. And...

NOGUCHI: In it are photos and items that played parts in cherished histories or inside jokes. As we talk and thumb through 23 years of Katy's life, we are tabulating in a sense all that the Sextons have lost - innocence, laughter, a future with grandchildren. Katy was a cellist. She wanted to become a nurse so she could help care for her severely autistic brother, Jacob (ph). The financial loss on top of everything is another source of despair. They drained their accounts to try to save Katy. Now they're left with feelings of failure and self-recrimination.

DALE SEXTON: I don't know what would or couldn't have made a difference. I just know it was my responsibility, and I didn't meet it.

M SEXTON: You did everything. Honey, you cashed your last pension so that we could send her to rehab. In every turn, we did everything we could to the expense of our family's well-being to try to save her.

K SEXTON: The Sextons are still trying to tie up the loose ends of Katy's financial life.

M SEXTON: Her student loans. They, of course, were wanting their money. And it's, like, she's gone, you know. And...

D SEXTON: Her phone bill. Last time, I got a collection call from rehab saying, we still need this much money. I didn't send them a check. I sent them a death certificate.

NOGUCHI: These are the cruel practicalities that Dale Sexton tries to spare his wife.

MARTIN: Well, Yuki, that's just devastating. And, you know, one of the points that you've been making in your reporting is that this is being repeated, you know, over and over again, you know, all over the country. But I understand that you spoke this past week to Katy's mom. Can you just tell us a little bit about how they're doing?

NOGUCHI: Well, you know, they're amazing people and so courageous and eloquent in their honesty, as you could hear. But, you know, one doesn't come back from the loss of a child, and they're struggling. It's just heartbreaking to me when Melissa tells me that Dale still blames himself for something he had no control over to begin with.

MARTIN: I want to go back to something that you said at the beginning - was when you first met Katy. You said that you kind of felt like, well, if there's hope for her, there's hope for the community. And now, these couple of years later, a lot of things have happened - court cases, settlements with the companies that made and distributed these drugs. What do the families talk about now? Is there anything in this whole story that feels different? Does the community in any way feel like it's on a different trajectory?

NOGUCHI: Well, back then and still now, I think the biggest question for the families is resources. You know, how do you address a problem that already is so big, you know? How do you remediate the - all the people that are already addicted to these substances and then also at the same time prevent it from getting bigger? You know, how do you treat a chronic relapsing disease where, as many families will tell you, treatment after treatment after expensive treatment sometimes doesn't work?

And, you know, right now, most of that burden falls on families who, like the Sextons, often exhaust all their resources trying to fight it. You know, so some of this settlement money that you talked about from the drug-maker suits are earmarked for these communities. And where that will go, what it will do, how effective it will be - I mean, I'm interested to know.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Yuki Noguchi talking about her reporting on the nation's opioid crisis.

Yuki, thank you so much for your reporting.

NOGUCHI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.