New hope for a scourge that's making a comeback

Nicole Kapulsky, 38, holds her Persian cat Sadie in the bedroom of her Glen Mills home. Kapulsky, once addicted to heroin, has been clean for five years thanks to the drug Vivtrol.

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I sat in an old church in Kensington and listened to people talk about loved ones they'd lost to the disease of addiction. Most had been addicted to heroin.

The son who, over his favorite pancakes, made endless promises to get clean.

The adored niece who seemed able to conquer all except a consuming addiction.

The daughter who took one more hit, her last.

It was the heartbreaking flip side of an afternoon spent in the Philadelphia suburb of Glen Mills with a woman who knew that if she didn't stop using heroin, her family would probably one day be memorializing her.

Nicole Kapulsky, 38, a mother of three, is a small woman with a big, welcoming smile and bright, clear eyes that radiate excitement about her life these days.

When my colleague William Bender first wrote about Kapulsky, she was 35 and had been clean for 19 months.

Now she's been clean almost five years.

She's working. She's reunited with her children, one of whom is headed off to the Air Force soon. She's planning an October 2016 wedding; she giddily shares that she will wear a pouffy pink dress.

And she's more determined than ever to spread the word about the "miracle" drug that helped kick an addiction that began when she was going through a bad divorce.

Desperate to get clean for good in 2011, a dope-sick Kapulsky went to a nearby library and Googled "ways to get clean on my own." She'd already done rehab and relapsed after methadone treatment.

The first thing that came up was Vivitrol, a non-narcotic monthly injection of naltrexone that blocks the cravings for heroin.

"I had nothing left so I had nothing left to lose," Kapulsky said. "I couldn't take any more of not being with my kids. My kids were my whole life. I wanted my life back."

Soon, she stopped her daily injections of heroin and began to get monthly injections of Vivitrol, an FDA-approved medication that prevents opiate addicts from getting high. No matter the treatment, experts said that therapy is key to kicking an addiction. She was on Vivitrol for 2 1/2 years, and says she's since never thought about getting high or going back to a lifestyle that now terrifies her.

"When you're high, you don't feel the fear," she says. "Now I fear it, because I know I should."

As inspiring as it is to see someone snatch her life from the relentless grip of heroin, this isn't an advertorial for Vivitrol.

There is no one way to beat an addiction. No one miracle.

I've had relatives and friends kick addictions with 12-step programs. I've met and written about others who turned to methadone or Suboxone to beat their drug habits. There are as many paths to recovery as to addiction, said Laura Boston-Jones, CEO of Girard Medical Center.

But all day, every day, it only takes a short walk from the Daily News offices and down Market Street to see the effects of addiction. It's also apparent in neighborhoods like Kensington, where the sight of addicts teetering down the street in search of their next fix is so routine that no one even blinks. But it's in plenty of sleepy suburbs, too.

And so, if there is another alternative to treating an epidemic that's killing people in record numbers across the country, then we need to highlight success stories like Kapulsky's and make the drug accessible to anyone who wants it.

Recent data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that heroin use increased 63 percent between 2002 and 2013. In that same period, heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled. Experts say that much of the heroin use these days is by people who can't afford the prescription pills and turn to the cheaper narcotic.

Last year in Philadelphia, 655 people died from drug overdoses, according to Roland Lamb, director of the Office of Addiction Services for the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services - a 33 percent increase from the 493 deaths in 2013. The office is projecting another increase this year. Toxicology tests detected heroin in a majority of the deaths.

"The problem just keeps getting worse," said Dr. Richard DiMonte, an addiction-treatment specialist in Media who has treated Kapulsky and thousands of patients addicted to prescription painkillers and heroin since he started prescribing Vivitrol in 2006.

In Philly, Boston-Jones was encouraged by a Vivitrol pilot program at her center at 8th Street and Girard Avenue that began in 2014. It was a small program, with 13 people participating the first year and 21 the second, but the results were so good that she and her staff are working to expand it and remove obstacles that might prevent access - including the length of inpatient care and the cost.

Most insurances now cover the treatment. A co-pay-assistance program also covers up to $500 a month of co-pay or deductible expenses related to Vivitrol for eligible patients.

Meanwhile, Kapulsky continues to look forward, and hopes that her success will inspire others.

"There's a better way," she said. "There's a better life. This is real."

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas