A shot of medicine for heroin addiction helps metro woman stay clean

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KANSAS CITY, Mo — A new government report finds heroin abuse skyrocketed in the past decade, rising by 90 percent—and treatment facilities in Kansas City say they're seeing more heroin addicts in recent months. But a shot of medicine is helping some addicts get and stay clean.

Gabby Cullen, 24, says she was hooked on injected street drugs starting at age 14. First, it was Oxycontin, but when availability dropped and the price rose Cullen, like many others, turned to heroin.

She can't imagine any drug being more addictive.

"Without it, you're just very sick. You pretty much don't want to live anymore," she said.

And on heroin, you can die. Cullen nearly did last fall when she went into liver failure.

"I'm very grateful I almost died, and I know that probably sounds crazy."

It got Cullen into treatment at Heartland Center for Behavioral Health in Kansas City. The medical team had recently started using a medication for heroin addiction. It's a shot called Vivitrol. The drug was first approved for alcoholics in 2006, then for opiate addicts in 2010. Use of the medication in heroin addiction has recently picked up.

"I had no idea how wonderful the program would turn out," said Patty Mathis, a nurse practitioner.

She says 90 percent of heroin addicts at the center who've received Vivitrol and counseling are still clean.

"It gives our clients the chance, the hope, that they will get better," said Mathis.

Vivitrol works by blunting the brain's cravings for heroin. Unlike methadone treatment, it's non-addictive and because it's a monthly shot, compliance may be better than with a daily pill.

"I don't wake up sick anymore. I wake up thanking God for this day," Cullen said.

In addition to treatment, Cullen goes to church and work.

"And I'm happy, which I don't think I've ever been happy in my life, so I am happy now," she said.

The major downside of Vivitrol is cost—$1,000 for the monthly shot. Cullen's medicine is paid for with state funding as the State of Missouri recently increased funding for it.