Reporter's Notebook: A Happy Life, a Terrible Addiction, a Tragic End

By Katie Hinman:

I’ve just returned from a memorial service for Darla Hawk, whom I met in 2008 while working on a story for "Nightline" about the heroin epidemic ravaging rural Ohio, precipitated by the devastating problem of prescription painkiller abuse there. In the past five years, emergency room visits due to overdoses of prescription drugs doubled, making it the country’s fastest-growing drug problem.

And heroin often follows suit for those who survive a painkiller addiction. That’s because heroin induces the same kind of high as prescription pills like Oxycontin, only it’s a fraction of the price. So once this community became reliant on painkillers, drug cartels saw a new market and moved in to sell heroin, often to people who would never have imagined their lives taking such a dark turn.

Darla was one of those people. Just shy of 40 years old when she died of an overdose two weeks ago, she and her husband Mike Hawk had been together since they were teenagers, and once had a happy home, parents to three teenagers and a baby boy. But drugs--first Oxycontin, then heroin--had ravaged their lives, and by the time "Nightline" contributor Lisa Ling and I met them, in rural Shelby, Ohio (population 9,000), we found both Mike and Darla, as well as their three older children, all using heroin, alongside a shocking number of their neighbors in this small town.

Mike and Darla’s story didn’t ultimately end up in our "Nightline" broadcast, which featured the story of Merry Doerr, a 24-year-old former cheerleader who was shooting heroin even during her pregnancy. But Lisa Ling, who also reports for "The Oprah Winfrey Show," brought their story to that show, where Oprah offered to get Merry and the entire Hawk family into rehab.

Ultimately, it worked better for some than others. Merry is doing really well now--she’s been clean for almost a year and just got a new job. And her baby’s with a wonderful adoptive family who live nearby.

Mike and Darla ended up here in New York City, where they struggled with issues of addiction and homelessness, but they managed to stay by each other’s side through it all. Mike’s getting a lot of help and support from a wonderful group of homeless services folks here, but Darla’s death is a deeply sad reminder of the truly epidemic nature of the prescription drug abuse problem in this country.

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