Back from brink of heroin abuse

Eddie and Paula Harkins with their son Jason, 25, who battled heroin addiction.

THE DAY HEAVEN Harkins' brother brought her back from the dead started out like so many they had shared.

It was the Saturday of Easter weekend last year. Fresh out of rehab and drug-free for three months, Heaven, 21, and Jason, 24, drove from their family's comfortable suburban home to "The Ave" in Philadelphia's Kensington section, ground zero for dope's lost souls.

The siblings scored 14 bags of heroin for $120 and parked their black Ford Focus at the ShopRite on Aramingo Avenue in search of the euphoria she desperately missed and he knew just as well.

Heaven pulled a couple of bags of white powder out of her bra, mixed the heroin with water, filled a syringe, and plunged the needle into her arm. Her eyes closed, her head slumped forward.

"She just died," Jason recently recalled.

"Her face was white. Her lips were purple. She was like a body in a casket. I felt her heart. Nothing. She was dead."

Jason frantically called 9-1-1.

The dispatcher told him to pull her out of the car, elevate her head, and do CPR.

Jason, who hadn't yet injected, carried his sister onto the pavement, tilted her head back, crossed his hands to pump her chest, and blew air into her mouth.

"All of a sudden she let out a big gasp of air," he said.

Paramedics arrived and gave Heaven a dose of Narcan, an opioid overdose antidote, then took her to a hospital.

Now alone in the car, Jason shot up before driving back to the hospital to get his sister.

"As soon as I walked out the door, I got high again," Heaven, now 22, recently recalled.

"I was sick. I had no choice. If heroin was in my pocket, I was going to use."

No. 1 cause of ODs

Opioid overdoses are now the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths in the state and the nation, killing more people each year than car accidents. Pennsylvania leads the nation in drug overdose death rates among young adult men - and Bucks County, where the Harkins family lives, ranks first in the state on that score. The death rate from overdoses in Bucks has more than doubled in the last 15 years.

Unlike drug epidemics of the past, opioid abuse often starts in a suburban physician's office with a prescription for an opioid painkiller before escalating into street dealing of pills and then heroin. Another difference: More parents are talking about what once was taboo in hopes of reaching others who believe heroin could never claim their children.

Eddie and Paula Harkins, both 48, describe Jason and Heaven as "perfect children," driven high school students, constantly busy with activities and part-time jobs. Jason picked up the saxophone at age 3, playing in bands and Mummers parades when he wasn't playing football or softball or boxing. Heaven played softball, too, and loved ballet, jazz and tap.

Both graduated from Bensalem High School and went on to Bucks County Community College.

For both, the road to heroin started with Percocet, a prescription opiate, but it was a road they traveled separately.

A doctor prescribed Percocets to Jason after he suffered a severe back injury from softball. Before long, Jason was hooked and needed more than the prescription provided.

"One day I saw him buying some from someone and we realized we were both doing it," said Heaven, who got her supply from friends. "Everybody in the neighborhood" would pop pills in the woods near the family's charming 1752 home, with an inground pool and waterfall pond.

After about 10 months, the siblings and their friends switched to heroin, first sniffing it, then shooting up.

"The Percs got to be $30 a pill, and heroin was $10 a bag," Jason said.

Jason and Heaven got to know Kensington Avenue, a favorite haunt of heroin addicts. The newbies are easy to spot, with their wide eyes, clean clothes, and backpacks. The longer they stay, the more they deteriorate. Many are homeless and sleep on the streets, in alleys, or in what they call abandominiums.

Paula and Eddie had no idea that their children were scoring drugs in the very neighborhood they had worked so hard to escape.

Paula, who grew up in a rowhouse on F Street, got pregnant in high school and had her son Stephen when she was 17.

She and Eddie married in 1989, and Eddie adopted Stephen. They moved to Bucks in the early '90s and built a solid middle-class life. Eddie is now an information technology specialist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, and Paula is a dealer at the Parx casino.

Stephen, now 31, is in prison for selling marijuana and threatening the police officer who arrested him, they said.

It didn't occur to them that Heaven and Jason could get in even more trouble.

The first signs were subtle.

"They were sleeping a lot and didn't seem to want to do much," Eddie recalled. "They hid it well."

But then cash started to go missing. Heaven and Jason pawned flat-screen TVs, phones, laptops, stereos, a food processor, artwork, even Jason's beloved $4,000 saxophone. Anything for their next $10 hit.

Once he got addicted, Jason said, he needed heroin just so he wouldn't feel sick.

"To withdraw from heroin is hell on Earth," he said as he stood in the kitchen on a recent Saturday, pacing and smoking cigarettes.

"You feel like you're going to die, like you want to rip your legs off and just end it."

Tried rehab and failed

The kids tried rehab and failed. They continued to steal. Their parents thought maybe tough love was needed. They kicked them out and dead-bolted the door. When they were at work, Jason and Heaven would sneak into the four-car garage and sleep on pool floats and outdoor cushions.

Paula and Eddie kept their despair from family and friends.

"I used to hide it from everyone and that eats you alive," she said.

"I didn't understand why. Just why? What did I miss? Everything went to the kids. Did I spoil them? Did I give them too much? Where did I go wrong?" she asked.

"I was just so scared they were going to die. All we did was worry."

Michael Armstrong, a family friend who works at Liberation Way, a Yardley drug treatment center, described the family as "remarkable, loving, very honest, and very genuine."

He praised their courage for sharing their story: "People would be naive to think that this couldn't happen to their family. It can happen to any family."

Eddie Harkins said he once would have judged parents with two addicted children.

"I was one of those people," he said. "I would have blamed the parents. But then it happened to us. I've learned how bad it is for so many people. I can't believe the number of families who are going through this."

Desperate for money

As Jason and Heaven grew more desperate for money, they rented their car to drug dealers. It wasn't really even theirs to rent. Heaven made the $8,000 down payment, but then everything she had or stole went to heroin. Her parents took over the payments, and tried to hide the car or trap it behind their own vehicles to keep their daughter from driving. "But Heaven always found a way to steal it back," her mother said.

Then Jason, Heaven, and her former boyfriend swiped artwork that their parents had stored for the owner and pawned it for $2,800. They were charged with theft.

Right after they left court on the case last Aug. 20, they headed to Kensington.

Heaven shot up a bag of heroin and started babbling about the car registration. Jason tried to take the wheel, but she pulled out of the Walgreens parking lot onto Kensington Avenue under the El. Jason was looking down at his phone, so he didn't notice that his sister had started to nod off and pass out.

She slammed into a parked police cruiser. One cop was in a nearby store, the other was standing on the sidewalk and saw what happened.

Heaven and Jason were arrested.

Their father calls the crash "the best thing that ever happened to me. The car is gone. And for now, the kids are safe," he said.

Heaven, charged with aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, and DUI, was sent to rehab. Now she lives in a halfway house in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and works at a treatment center in nearby Jensen Beach.

"I'm never around drugs, and really it's not hard at all," she said with a confidence that she says she wouldn't have if she still lived where she used heroin. She wants to stay in Florida, go to school, and become a counselor.

She came home recently for court on her aggravated assault case. The visit coincided with her 22nd birthday, so family and friends celebrated at home with pulled pork sandwiches, pasta salad, cookies, chips, and iced cakes.

Jason has been in treatment at Liberation Way in Yardley since December. He is prescribed suboxone, a synthetic opioid that helps prevent heroin cravings, and he can come home for visits.

Still suffering from the severe back pain that started him on Percocet, he chose to not sit in the kitchen, only to pace or stand, while taking several smoke breaks outside on the deck.

"He's grown up a lot in the last year," his mom said. "I'm very proud of him."

Jason said he hasn't used heroin since the August crash. "You have to want to get sober," he said.

Is it forever?

"Never say never, right?" he responded.

His mom looked down, her expression changing from pride to anguish.

When his back pain is at its worst, he thinks of the relief that Percocets gave him.

"My fear is that I will worry about this the rest of my life," his father said.

"I don't want someone showing up at my door with bad news. I don't want to bury my kid."

lakerb@phillynews.com

215-854-5933 @barbaralaker