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Identity & Community

What opioid victims, including a Pennsylvania mom, told the Sacklers when they received the chance

pittsburgh won't forget u overdose awareness opioid substance use wide.JPG
Katie Blackley
/
90.5 WESA
The displays in the portico of the downtown City County Building. The group Pittsburgh Won't Forget U has been doing such memorials of people who have died from an opioid overdose since 2017.

A virtual hearing Thursday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court gave survivors of opioid addiction and people who lost loved ones to the crisis what they have long desired — the chance to confront members of the family behind OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma. They blamed the Sackler family members for helping fuel the epidemic through marketing of Purdue's signature painkiller OxyContin and for failing to take responsibility for their role.

Three Sackler family members attended the hearing: Richard, Theresa and David Sackler. Under court rules, they could not respond and had to sit silently while roughly two dozen people gave emotional statements.

Richard Sackler appeared only via audio; he is the former Purdue president and board chair who has said the company and family bear no responsibility for the opioid crisis. He also is a son of Raymond Sackler, one of the three brothers who in the 1950s bought the company that became Purdue Pharma. Theresa Sackler is a British dame and wife of the late Mortimer D. Sackler, another of the brothers, while David Sackler is Richard Sackler’s son. Both appeared on video.

What some of the victims, selected by lawyers for creditors in the case, said when they finally got the chance to speak directly to the Sacklers:

'Scum of the Earth'

Kristy Nelson played a tape of her 911 call reporting that her son was unresponsive. Later this month, she and her husband will go to the cemetery to mark what would have been Brian’s 34th birthday and pointed out that Richard Sackler turned 77 on Thursday: “I understand today’s your birthday, Richard. How will you be celebrating? I guarantee it won’t be in the cemetery. ... You have truly benefitted from the death of children. You are scum of the earth.”

Her husband, Bill, a judge in Indianapolis, added: “I seriously doubt that anything any of us say today to these people will have any effect whatsoever. When we are done, David and Theresa will do whatever billionaires and dames do. Richard will hang up his phone and go do whatever greedy billionaire cowards do on their birthdays.”

A broken man

Vitaly Pinkusov lost his wife to an overdose when she was 32 and held up a photo of her: “Please understand that I stand here before you as a broken man. ... I’m broken, so please look at me. You can look me in the eyes, or you can avoid looking at me. ... I’m the face of the opioid epidemic. ... How do I feel about you? ... The closest feeling is the feeling of pure contempt. I do not forgive you. ... You are not condemned to death. You are condemned to eternal infamy without the possibility of release.”

'You know what you did'

Ryan Hampton, who became addicted after being prescribed OxyContin for a knee injury, addressed Richard Sackler: “You know what you did. I hope that every single victim’s face haunts your every waking moment and your sleeping ones, too. I hope you hear our names in your dreams. … I hope you hear the sirens. I hope you hear the heart monitor as it beats along with failing pulse. ... You poisoned our lives and had the audacity to blame us for dying. ... Richard Sackler, you are the abuser, you are the criminal, and you are the culprit."

Keeping grandpa safe

Wendy Olsen told how her father, a retired pediatrician and Army officer, became addicted after a hospital stay in his 80s, decades after turning back a Purdue sales representative who suggested he should prescribe OxyContin. “The colonel barked out his orders demanding OxyContin,” she said of when he returned home. “When we refused, he went into shaky, pukey withdrawal.” Since then, it’s been a struggle to keep him safe. Olsen’s son, Danny, said he now sleeps on the sofa “with one eye open to intercept Grandpa” before he harms himself. “No amount of money can shield your conscience from the pain you’ve caused – not relieved, but caused,” he said.

An empty Mother's Day

Kim Blake, a Vermont doctor who lost her son to an overdose after he was released from prison, where he could not get medication to treat his addiction: “I couldn’t face another Mother’s Day without him. I have never taken your drug, but it has nearly cost me my life.”

The cost of addiction

Kathy Strain, a Pennsylvania mother caring for children with addiction, said medication to treat it was expensive. She said she worked 16-hour overnight shifts as often as possible so she could keep days free to ferry her children to treatment: “Costs were so high that sometimes we had to purchase medication daily, and some days I had to choose which of my children I could help, based on my best guess of which one was most likely to make it through that day. Can you, Richard, imagine how to make that decision? You will never have the slightest clue of what that meant to me.”

Artist's livelihood lost

Nan Goldin described how she rapidly became addicted to OxyContin after a prescription following wrist surgery. Her career as an artist fell apart, she didn’t leave her room for three years, and she overdosed in 2017 and spent months in a clinic. “It’s nice to finally see the Sacklers face to face,” she said. She called for federal criminal charges against the Sacklers and said their recent statement of responsibility, in which they expressed regret for the toll of OxyContin but did not explicitly apologize, was “insulting to all of us who’ve been damaged by them.”

Too little, too late?

Cheryl Juaire, a Massachusetts woman who lost two sons to opioid overdoses: “How much money is enough? Really, truly, how much is enough? If your family had any remorse at all, you could have changed the trajectory by taking your money back in 2007 and used it to abate this crisis.”

Empathy over money

Stephanie Lubinski, whose addicted husband took his own life in their home in 2020: “Richard, David and Theresa, you have made an insane amount of money off of our family, more than you could ever spend,” she said, noting that she is grappling with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills. “Can’t you all feel one bit of empathy for the victims, the devastation that your drug has caused?”

Mercy on your souls

“I am no longer the woman I once was. You have cheated my children from the mother I once was, you have cheated my husband from the wife I once was,” said Jill Cichowicz, whose twin brother, Scott, died of a fentanyl overdose in 2017. “However, I can still look in the mirror and know that I am a good person. ... May God have mercy on all your souls, because no one in this room will.”

Angry but moving forward

Jannette Adams' husband, Dr. Thomas Adams, died in 2015 after becoming addicted to opioids following pitches by pharmaceutical company representatives: “I’m angry, I’m pissed, but I move on. Because our society lost a person who could have made so many more contributions. ... You took so much from us, but we plan to, through our faith in God, move forward."

Addicted and pregnant

Kara Trainor, who is in recovery, gave birth to her son while on methadone to treat her addiction: “If you’ve ever heard a newborn in withdrawal, the screaming will haunt you for the rest of your life."

Despicable

Shelly Whitaker is the mother of three children born dependent on opioids that were prescribed to her for medical conditions: “You are despicable. Your greed has affected my children for the rest of their lives,” she said “I do take full responsibility for what I did.” She said she wished the Sacklers would do likewise.

'Pay a little money'

Randi Pollock's brother became addicted to OxyContin that was prescribed for nerve pain: “If you could at least take responsibility and apologize and pay a little money to people who have dead people in their family, because they don’t have the opportunity to go to rehab, I just think that would make a big difference and it doesn’t take too much effort on your part.”

'I'm outraged'

“When you created OxyContin, you created so much loss for so many people," said Kay Scarpone, who lost her son Joseph. "I’m outraged that you haven’t owned up to the crisis that you’ve created.”