SUNSET PARK, Brooklyn — A 30-year-old Queens man was lucky to have his hands saved after emergency surgery Friday to debride dead skin on each one.
The skin on Joe's hands had turned into huge black and yellow scabs from constant exposure to heroin needles.
“I didn’t understand how severely infected they were,” Joe told PIX11 when he returned to the Resource Beacon of Hope detox center on Monday. “But I’m glad I got them taken care of.”
The detox center took one look at his hands and knew they were a problem.
“We knew right away it was an emergency,” said Donna Mae DePola, founder of Resource Beacon of Hope. “When I first looked at it, I was not going to be surprised: He was losing his hands, but he did not.”
Joe was first accepted into the detox center Friday morning. The facility got him emergency Medicaid and a bed after an appeal from PIX11. The nurses thought it was odd he was wearing black gloves over his hands in 90-plus degree heat.
When they performed a physical and saw his hands, they worried Joe may have had gangrene.
“He could have gotten a blood infection,” nurse Anna Pitsel observed. “It (the infection) was all the way down to the bottom layer.”
An ambulance took Joe to NYU-Langone Lutheran Medical Center, where he went into surgery Friday evening to save his hands.
“It’s like a burn case,” DePola told PIX11. “What they do, they have to take all the dead skin away from the infection, or it will spread. It’s very painful.”’
Instead of getting intravenous antibiotics, doctors gave Joe a heavy dose of oral medicine to kill the infection in his hands.
But some hospital personnel balked at giving him Suboxone, a medication frequently used by people trying to withdraw from heroin.
“I just think they don’t understand what I was going through,” Joe said.
DePola had to intercede on Saturday to get Joe his Suboxone and then worked the phones on Monday to get the young addict back to detox so he could continue with his withdrawals there.
Detox generally lasts five to seven days, but some clients stay up to two weeks. Then it’s time to figure out treatment options.
“We believe Suboxone alone is not a treatment,” DePola said. “You need treatment with Suboxone, in order to work out the feelings of why you use drugs. And how you stay off drugs.”
Joe told us he was exposed to his mother’s use of painkillers at a young age, growing up in Elmont and Valley Stream, Long Island.
He said his mother often nodded off and burned cigarette holes on the couch, while Joe—the oldest—took care of his younger brothers. His mother later had daughters.
Joe said he started recreationally using painkillers—highly addictive opioids like Oxycodone and Percocet— when he was about 22 years old.
When pills became less readily available, Joe said he started snorting heroin. Then, a friend injected it into his veins three years ago.
He’d been living in Ridgewood, Queens and getting his heroin from nearby Bushwick, Brooklyn.
“You feel warm, like wrapped in a warm blanket,” Joe said of the high heroin brought. But the withdrawals turned out to be “bone shattering.”
Donna DePola told PIX11 she knows what Joe is talking about. The founder of Resource Beacon of Hope had personally started dabbling with Quaaludes when she was just 9 years old.
In her book, “Ten Tins,” she had chronicled her father’s sexual abuse of her starting at a very young age. Her descent into heavy drug use led to speedballing of heroin and cocaine.
“I was doing $4 to 5 thousand a week in heroin,” DePola said.
After DePola’s mother got sick—and her father had died—she decided to get her act together.
She’s been clean more than thirty years.
DePola met Ann Marie Parado, a grieving mom, after Parado lost her 22 year old son, Christopher, to a pill overdose.
“He got prescribed painkillers after a minor car accident,” Parado said of her son. “He could have used Tylenol, Extra Strength Tylenol.”
Instead, Parado’s son was using Oxycodone and Percocet pills.
“Another doctor said he was depressed and started prescribing him more pills,” Parado recalled. “I didn’t understand how my love couldn’t save him.”
Parado said she was uneducated about the disease of addiction and, after her son’s death, she started volunteering in the addiction community, hoping to make a difference in just one life.
“Try to get through to one,” Parado said. “Just one.”
Joe returned to his detox bed Monday afternoon, looking pale after surgery—with both his hands wrapped in white gauze. He was ready for another dose of Suboxone to assist with withdrawals.
We told Joe that many of our viewers were rooting for his recovery, and I gave the young man a memorial card featuring a photo of the late NYPD Detective, Steven McDonald—who was close to Joe’s age when he suffered a debilitating gunshot injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Joe remembered PIX11’s coverage of McDonald’s funeral this past January, when McDonald died of a heart attack at the age of 59.
He had lived more than 30 years with his injury.
“He was a very brave person,” I told Joe, as I handed him McDonald’s prayer card.
Now, it is Joe’s turn to be brave—and fight on.