Zohydro is the new FDA-approved painkiller that some doctors think the FDA had no business approving. And in ERs across America, they’re anxiously awaiting the fallout.
(Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine)
Even before a single doctor in the United States had written a prescription for Zohydro, the controversial long-acting painkiller approved by the Food and Drug Administration last October, potential users were already dreaming up possible street names. “How many times will this be said in the future,” someone posted on Opiophile, an online forum for people who like to share their drug experiences and expertise. “Got any of dem Zoh’s?” There were other possibilities: Zs, Zodros, and Zorros.
Another voiced chimed in: “I like Zorros … Yeah, has a ring to it.” This was on October 26, 2013, less than 24 hours after the FDA announced its decision.
And in April, even before Nima Majlesi, an emergency-room physician at Staten Island University Hospital, had seen a single report of an overdose or death related to Zohydro in the borough, he and his fellow doctor Amit Gupta were searching websites for the first anecdotal, and decidedly unofficial, accounts of its recreational use. Majlesi logged on to another well-known drug-use site to see if anyone had posted an opening-night review.
“How do you spell it again?” he asked Gupta, with whom he shares an unadorned office a few feet from the emergency room.
“Z-O-H-Y-D-R-O,” Gupta said, and Majlesi repeated the letters aloud as he typed them into a site called Erowid.
If the prescription-painkiller epidemic in America is a heartland phenomenon, as is often said, the heartland begins just beyond the toll plaza of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. As New York City Department of Health epidemiologists have helplessly documented over the past ten years, opioid abuse has skyrocketed on Staten Island, with three times the rate of overdose deaths of the rest of the city. In a borough where police have busted illegal prescription-drug-selling operations in everything from a neighborhood deli to an ice-cream truck, Majlesi and Gupta have seen and heard it all: the urgent calls of EMS teams phoning in reports of suspected overdoses as ambulance crews race to the hospital, lethargic or comatose patients (often young adults in their 20s and 30s) wheeled into the ER. Sometimes the overdose is accidental. Often there’s nothing to do because first responders didn’t arrive in time.