Luzerne County overdoses spanned generations in 2017

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -
Lisman -

Richard Sorokas said his 76-year-old brother, Paul, was among the 154 who died from accidental drug overdoses in Luzerne County last year.

“He didn’t know which way to turn,” said Sorokas, 73, a Wilkes-Barre resident who is married to former county councilwoman Eileen Sorokas.

Sorokas said he’s open about his brother’s battle with prescription medication because he wants the public to understand people of all ages and backgrounds are dying from opioids.

According to new statistics released by county Coroner William Lisman’s office, two people in their 70s were among last year’s overdose death victims.

The highest number — 50 people — were in their 30s.

The count in other age categories:

• Under 20: 5

• 20s: 39

• 40s: 26

• 50s: 23

• 60s: 9

Twice as many men died as women, the statistics show. There were 105 male overdose deaths, and 49 female.

Coping with pain

Sorokas said his brother, a veteran, was prescribed opioids at least 15 years ago for persistent back pain largely stemming from his labor work in factories and construction.

While the pain was erased, the medication triggered a downward spiral. At one point, he was prescribed 24 different medications.

Doctors eventually cut off his prescriptions, but he couldn’t cope with the return of his pain and the physical and psychological effects of withdrawal, Sorokas said.

His brother’s solution: self medication through pharmaceuticals he had stockpiled. To make matters worse, he continued to drink alcohol, his brother said.

“He didn’t know how to live with the pain,” Sorokas said.

He said many other pain sufferers are in the same boat, and more help is needed to help them deal with the shock of weaning off opioids. He said his brother gave up in the end.

“Something should be done,” said Sorokas.

Toxicology testing detected Oxycontin, morphine, high quantities of Tylenol and other substances in his brother’s system when he died, Sorokas said. He filled a 20-pound garbage bag with medication his brother had left behind.

He said his brother is remembered by many for his generosity and “happy-go-lucky” personality.

“He loved socializing and doing things for people,” Sorokas said.

Drug breakdown

Of the 154 drug deaths last year, more than half, or 90, involved the synthetic opioid fentanyl, according to the statistics released by Coroner Lisman.

In 16 cases, fentanyl was the only drug detected. Another five had fentanyl and heroin with no other drugs, and 69 had fentanyl and other drugs.

Heroin was another prime killer, the statistics show. Forty deaths involved heroin and other drugs, and heroin alone was present in two cases.

Cocaine was the only drug detected in five cases, and one solely involved Oxycodone, the statistics show.

Several years ago, heroin and fentanyl was detected in less than 40 percent of the deaths, Lisman said.

“Fentanyl is the biggest problem now. Year ago, it was mostly prescription drugs,” said the coroner.

County Drug and Alcohol Director Steve Ross recently told county council combating the epidemic will require help from many groups.

The epidemic started in the mid to late 1990s when the medical community started treating pain as an additional vital sign while pharmaceutical companies marketed prescription pain medication as non-addictive, Ross told council. Many became hooked on the pills and turned to heroin when they could no longer access or afford them, he said.

On average, 900,000 to 950,000 opioid pills are prescribed to Luzerne County residents each month, he said. The county has a population of around 316,380.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.