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Gazette: Fatal Addiction: Falcon High Grad — Gifted and Gracious — Loses Life at 25 to Heroin

Posted 09/19/2017

The Gazette
Stephanie Earls

Seven years and addiction to a lethal drug marked the distance between the frail form laced by tubes and wires to a hospital bed and the Makenzie Taylor Bourdelais who should have been.

There still were echoes of the beautiful and talented "niecster" Tracy Kelley had known, a thoughtful kid who loved animals, art and making people happy, who always got the last word by saying, "I love you more."

And that was, perhaps, the hardest part of watching her die.

"I could still see that same face - she was still there - but she was just destroyed, inside and out," Tracy said. "It just felt like such a waste of a life."

Makenzie had been a popular student, a cheerleader at Falcon High School, academic stalwart and saxophone player in the band, the kind of gifted and gracious teen who calls into question any stereotypes you might have about the in-crowd.

 

Her senior year, though, she tried heroin. The drug opened a door she would spend the rest of her short life struggling to close.

"She told my mom she knew the very first time she tried it that she was addicted," said Tracy, whose parents, Herb and Judy Bourdelais, were Makenzie's primary caregivers from the time she was 1 and legally adopted her when she was 6.

At first, Makenzie smoked the drug, but she graduated to injecting it. That act, and most likely a dirty needle, introduced bacteria that traveled through her bloodstream and found purchase on a valve of her heart, flourishing into a life-threatening inflammation known as endocarditis.

Makenzie died July 5, at age 25, after the infection overwhelmed her heart and spread throughout her body.

Though endocarditis is a diagnosis once rarely seen in younger patients, hospitals in Colorado and nationwide are noting a discouraging trend as more otherwise-healthy IV drug users arrive needing emergency treatment for a heart condition that, without medical intervention, invariably is fatal.

Gateway to addiction

Heroin is reaping the sinister benefits of the nation's prescription painkiller epidemic. Among a class of "opioid" drugs - highly addictive legal and illegal chemical cousins, of varying potency, that relieve pain primarily by triggering euphoria in the brain - heroin use has risen fivefold in the past decade, and doctors are in general agreement as to why.

"What we're seeing in our community and throughout the country, patients have normal lives and they have an incident or develop a condition and a well-meaning physician puts them on a pain medication for a while," said Dr. Scott Ross, a pain management specialist and anesthesiologist with Penrose-St. Francis Health Services. "Over time, they start taking more and more of the medication and the drug is now being used because it makes them feel better rather than for pain relief. They become dependent on it."

With more states, including Colorado, aiming to throttle the crisis at its source by enacting sweeping changes to the way doctors prescribe drugs and track patients who receive them, feeding a pharmaceutical addiction, legally, is tougher than ever.

"These folks find another way to get it, on the street. They find a cheaper alternative, and unfortunately heroin is making a resurgence as an alternative," Ross said. "That's becoming more and more common. It's very sad."

In 2016, the number of people dying from traditional opioid painkillers, including oxycodone and hydrocodone, dropped - from 259 to 188, the lowest it has been in at least six years, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. That same period, however, also saw a 23 percent rise in fatal heroin overdoses in Colorado.

And overdose isn't the only way the drug, and a user's method of introducing it into the body, can sicken and kill.

El Paso County Public Health blames an increase in IV drug use among people age 20 to 39 for a spike in the chronic hepatitis C diagnoses among that population, a number that has doubled since 2015 and shows little signs of slowing.

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