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Killing pain and careers

Posted: Thursday, July 29, 2004

Jeff Allison dreamed a year ago of leaping quickly from first-round draft choice for the Florida Marlins to National League All-Star. Instead, he sank sadly from a prescription drug addiction to a heroin overdose.

He had it all, the 95 mph fastball, the $1.85 million signing bonus, the gushing praise of Marlins manager Jack McKeon.

Now it's all gone and the Marlins want nothing more to do with this 19-year-old who showed so much promise but delivered nothing but trouble.

Hospitalized and released a few days ago in his hometown of Peabody, Mass., Allison is not alone among athletes who have gotten hooked on opiates such as OxyContin that were prescribed by doctors or procured on the black market.

''I detoxed a pro football player just last week,'' Dr. Clifford A. Bernstein, medical director of the Waismann Institute in Beverly Hills, Calif., said Tuesday. ''He was a defensive end, retired two years now. He said he'd been doing OxyContin all through his college career and five years in the pros.''

OxyContin, dubbed ''Hillbilly Heroin,'' is one of the most powerful narcotics prescribed by doctors. Along with its widely used relative, Vicodin, they are the painkillers of choice among athletes. Both are opiates, just a few steps away chemically from street heroin.

Bernstein has treated about a dozen major league baseball players, a similar number of NFL players, a couple of NBA players, about 150 well-known Hollywood celebrities and several thousand weekend warriors for addictions to opiates.

''Pitchers throw out a shoulder, hurt a wrist, elbow, get lots of aches and pains,'' Bernstein said. ''They get exposed to these opiate medications early, usually starting with Vicodin. Next thing you know the pain is going away and they're feeling good because these things give you a little energy. And they start thinking, 'Hey, the doctor gave it to me, I'm winning games, no problem.'''

Except there can be serious problems, including breathing difficulty, disorientation, dizziness, hearing loss, constipation, sweating, vomiting and, in overdoses, death. OxyContin is prescribed for moderate to severe pain in chronic conditions, but it's a dubious, if not irresponsible, choice for athletes to take in high dosages throughout the season.

''With these athletes, there's a big push to get them on the field, whether it takes OxyContin or whatever,'' said Bernstein, a chronic pain specialist who uses an accelerated treatment called the Waismann Method to get people off opium-based painkillers.

''I stand toe-to-toe with these other pain doctors who think chronic pain needs to be treated aggressively. I just don't agree that OxyContin is the way to treat it.''

Opiates mask pain but perpetuate their own need and hook patients, Bernstein said.

''After a while, the drug just doesn't work, so you need more,'' he said. ''And if you don't have it, you get very sick and your pain is worse, which is withdrawal. Your body convinces you that you need more and more. Football players are always hurting. You talk to them and they say Vicodin flows freely in the locker room.''

Athletes tell Bernstein they take Vicodin like candy, getting it from the pharmacy, over the Internet or in Mexico. Instead of taking a 5 milligram or 10 milligram dose twice a day for a week or so, many gulp much higher dosages.

Vicodin, generically hydrocodone, is similar to the more powerful, suspended-release OxyContin, known generically as oxycodone.

''With OxyContin, 80 milligrams is a pretty strong dose that a lot of people use,'' Bernstein said. ''Most guys that are hooked on it are taking 40 to 80 milligram tablets two or three times a day. I've seen people coming in on a 10- or 20-a-day habit.''

For Allison to go from OxyContin to heroin doesn't surprise Bernstein.

''It's just the next step,'' Bernstein said.

Allison, who spent three days in the hospital because of the heroin overdose, according to police, could find help from the kind of treatment for chemical imbalance that Bernstein has used on other patients.

It may not be too late for Allison to recover his health, kick his drug problems, and get back on the path to stardom he seemed to be on a year ago when the Marlins made him the 16th pick overall. He had been a standout at Peabody High School, going 8-0 without allowing an earned run in 63 1-3 innings as a senior.

He has issues to settle and a lot of growing up to do. He showed up three weeks late to Florida's camp this spring, reportedly failed at least one drug test and was placed on baseball's restricted list for leaving extended spring training without permission.

The Marlins may never give him another chance, but another team probably will if he cleans himself up and gets serious about the game again. Pitchers with 95 mph fastballs are always in demand.

The treatment is out there. The question is whether Allison will go for it and whether other athletes will learn a lesson from his unhappy tale.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org.



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