New implant offers dose of hope for opioid addicts

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation
CHICAGO (WLS) -- Authorities said three people die every day somewhere in Chicago or the suburbs from overdosing on opioids such as heroin or the super-painkiller fentanyl. The federal government is now calling for easier access to anti-addiction treatments, including a dose of hope for one Chicago man who seemed to be on a near-death journey: a small implanted device that the I-Team discovered could save lives.

"Shooting up heroin is better than sex. The rush is 100 times better," said Dominic Tufano, addiction patient.

Dominic said he's overdosed on heroin several times, most recently at home. His father, a retired Chicago police officer, found him.

"I've seen a lot of death but I never saw one with the color that he had, it was... my wife was screaming, 'He's dead, he's dead,'" said Rich Tufano, Dominic's father.

"It's a physical drug, it eats at you and it takes your soul away. It makes you do anything," Dominic said.

Haunted and, until recently, helpless to the powerful addiction, Tufano is now trying something new as part of his treatment program. Just under the skin in his left arm is a drug-emitting implant, the first of its kind, that could help him beat the addiction. It's called probuphine.

The four matchstick-sized rods release a steady dose of the medication buprenorphine which can curtail cravings and prevent withdrawal symptoms.

"You know, it's there and it's helping," Trufano said.

"Even if he were to go back, he couldn't get high. I think anyone at risk of overdosing should have this in their arm," said Dr. Andrew J. Engel, anesthesiologist and pain management physician.

The statistics are staggering. In Cook County last year more than 600 people died from heroin and fentanyl overdoses. In DuPage County last year records reveal a 100 percent surge in deaths from criminally-produced fentanyl.

"We had 16 pure fentanyl deaths. The public needs to know how dangerous this is. Ur kids need to know that this is a highly addictive drug and it will ruin your life," said Dr. Richard Jorgensen, DuPage County coroner.

The I-Team rode along with DuPage Colonel Frank Bibbiano, who calls fentanyl a quiet killer, a drug being consumed in peaceful suburban neighborhoods.

"It is not restrained by any sort of social class or income class, it's everywhere," Bibbiano said.

"We are getting a lot more 911 calls for unresponsive people due to fentanyl," said Dep. James Vandevoorde, DuPage County Sheriff's Department.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said getting heroin and fentanyl off the streets is the agency's top priority in Chicago.

"We know the Chinese cooks and chemists are working with the Mexican traffickers in Mexico, combining the fentanyl with the heroin and smuggling it up across the border in Chicago," said Dennis Wichern, DEA Chicago.

Dominic's father said any effort to make opioids more difficult to get is appreciated, because he knows the implant in Dominic's arm is no magic bullet. But he hopes it will help him stay clean.

"When he comes home I search him, and it's terrible that I gotta search my own kid when he comes in the house but I have to," Rich said.

"I chased it for four years and I'm never going to chase it again and I hope, I hope people that watch this never try it," Dominic said.

Dominic has been on the implant since December and if he stays on it the rods are changed out every six months. Doctors don't recommend this treatment for everyone fighting opioid addiction, and the treatment costs about $5,000, but is said to be covered by most insurance.

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