Sarah Shay was a vibrant young girl with a bright future, according to her mother, Dr. Karen Shay, a Morehead dentist.
“She was a great girl,” Dr. Shay told students, faculty and local officials during an assembly in the West Jessamine High School auditorium Thursday morning.
“She was probably a lot like most of you,” Dr. Shay said, with voice breaking at times.
Sarah Shay died in 2006 at the age of 19 from a prescription-drug overdose, and Dr. Shay was in Jessamine County along with Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway and Kentucky Drug Czar Van Ingram to talk about Kentucky’s prescription-drug-abuse epidemic.
“Prescription painkillers (such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and alprazolam) are the number-one cause of accidental death in Kentucky,” Conway said. “These are some of the most addictive substances on the planet. If taken in the wrong combination, or with other substances, they can kill you.”
Kentucky has the sixth-highest overdose rate in the country, Conway said, adding that the state sees more than 1,000 drug-overdose deaths each year, which is more than the number of people killed each year in automobile accidents.
In 2010, Conway started the Keep Kentucky Kids Safe initiative with the Kentucky Justice Cabinet and its Office of Drug Control Policy, Kentucky Pharmacists Association, National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, Operation UNITE and concerned parents.
Conway said House Bill 1, passed in April 2012, has been an effective tool in tracking the number of pain-killing drugs doctors prescribe and pharmacist dispense. At the same time, those numbers have been staggering.
“Last year alone, we dispensed 221 million doses of hydrocodone in this state,” Conway said. “We’re a state of 4.3 million people; that’s about 51 doses of hydrocodone for every man, woman and child in this state.”
During the hour-long assembly at West High, Dr. Shay’s testimony captivated the crowd, drawing tears and gasps from those listening to her story.
“I can remember being in the hospital room when the doctor told us that she had passed away,” Dr. Shay said. “I remember hearing a horrific scream and then realizing that the scream was coming from me. I felt like somebody shot 1,000 volts of electricity through my body.”
Dr. Shay said her daughter’s prescription-drug problem was discovered a few years prior to Sarah Shay’s death. She said her daughter sought treatment and seemed to be turning the tide, but in the end, it claimed her life.
Conway said those stories are not uncommon.
“If you get hooked on prescription pain pills, and they’re easy to get hooked on, then chances are that you’re going to one of two places — you’re either going to jail or you’re going to your grave,” Conway said.
Conway and Ingram praised Dr. Shay for helping get the message about the prescription-drug-abuse problem out to people across the state.
“(Dr. Shay’s) message is much more powerful than General Conway and I can bring to you,” Ingram said. “More people die from an overdose on prescription drugs than die in car wrecks in this state. This is a man-made epidemic that we’ve created in this country, (but) it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Ingram broke down Kentucky’s most frequently detected drugs in the bloods of overdose victims in 2011.
Painkillers such as alprazolam (41.81 percent), oxycodone (31.14 percent) and oxymorephone (22.51) were listed as the top three.
Toward the end of her presentation, Dr. Shay said her purpose wasn’t to garner condolences.
“The grief that prescription-drug abuse has caused my family is unimaginable,” she said. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about Sarah. By sharing her story with others, I hope I can prevent this heartache for other families.”