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May 22nd, 2008
10:17 AM ET

A Sister Found; An Abuse Uncovered

Editor's Note: David Fitzpatrick was part of a CNN investigation into just how easy it is to purchase prescription drugs online without a prescription. Read a report on this investigation at CNN.com/health. He share's his personal experience here:

Editor's note:

Nancy Fitzpatrick
Nancy Fitzpatrick

David Fitzpatrick
CNN Special Investigations Unit

For more than 16 years, I had been out of touch with my sister, Nancy. One day in 1992, she simply disappeared from her California home. She left her two children, her husband, who then was in the early stages of Multiple Sclerosis, and all of her friends and family. There was no note, no phone call, nothing.

The last physical record I had of her movements was a rental car credit bill, charged to one of my cards from Las Vegas, Nevada. She vanished without a trace. Working for CBS News at the time, I tried to track her down through police, county sheriff’s offices, state authorities in California and Nevada but without success. As the months and then years went by, I kept in touch with her children, then in their early 20s. As far as I could tell, she made no effort to contact them.

I became convinced that Nancy, two years younger than I, was dead. She was either the victim of a random criminal act or had died of natural causes.

In early March of this year, the phone rang at our home outside of New York City. I wasn’t there. I was in Washington, D.C. on assignment. But it was a phone call that would change my life.

The call was from former high school classmate of Nancy’s, who it turned out had found her through the internet and rescued her from a wretched one room apartment in southern Arizona. The classmate took Nancy to her home in Gig Harbor, Washington; gave Nancy reduced rent in the duplex apartment adjacent to her own and set up housekeeping in late 2005. Her only income? Social Security disability payments amounting to a little more than $600 a month.

I was still unaware of any of this because Nancy begged her former classmate not to get in touch with me. But the phone call was to tell me that after more than two years, Nancy was being evicted for chronic non-payment of rent. Almost before I had a chance to process that information and before I was able to speak to Nancy, another phone call: this one to tell me that Nancy had attempted suicide and had been rushed to a hospital in nearby Tacoma.

I flew to Tacoma the next day and found Nancy intubated, unable to breathe on her own and, according to physicians at Allenmore Hospital, very close to death. She had ingested dozens of pills, mostly the muscle relaxant Soma and the anti-depressant drug Elavil. Where had she gotten those drugs?

I went to my sister’s duplex and found five empty or partially empty prescription bottles from pharmacies in Kansas, Utah, Mississippi, California and Michigan. Each had a different doctor’s name listed as the prescribing physician. But how could my sister be in contact with those doctors in different states? And why were the physicians listed on the bottles nowhere near the pharmacies from which the drugs had been shipped?

Thanks to the nurses and doctors at Allenmore Hospital, my sister slowly began to recover. And I discovered that Nancy had been routinely ordering drugs over the internet. So many drugs, in fact, that she had become addicted to Soma and couldn’t afford any money to pay rent or any other routine bills.

When I knew my sister was out of danger, I began to research internet prescriptions. One of the pharmacies listed on my sister’s prescription bottles was Hogan’s Pharmacy in Lyons, Kansas. It turned out that Kansas authorities had just closed Hogans, in the tiny town of Lyons, Kansas, for shipping out nearly 1,000 prescriptions a day across the nation. A man living outside Wichita, Kansas had died of an accidental overdose of the drug Soma, sent to him from Hogan’s Pharmacy, and authorities were beginning a criminal investigation.

As my research went on, it led me to the National Association of the State Boards of Pharmacy, headquartered in suburban Chicago. Its executive director confirmed that his organization has been trying for years to clamp down on internet prescriptions with little or no success. He said most state pharmacy boards are understaffed and have few resources to prevent online drug purchases.

As for the doctors listed on those prescription labels? The executive director of the Mississippi State Board of Pharmacy told CNN that many doctors are paid a flat yearly fee by internet companies and their approval of drugs sent to millions of Americans is little more than a rubber stamp.

My sister now seems out of danger. She has found a new place to live, has no access to the internet for the time being and is being treated by mental health professionals. But the easy movement of prescription drugs nationwide is a subject that I will continue to investigate and report. I owe that much to my sister.

soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. Marry Antuane

    Cheryl Ssummers said: "She can get pills on line but can’t seem to try to find her own kids."

    I agree whole heartedly. The problem (in this particular story) would not have changed AT ALL whether some pills were purchased on-line or not. The pills did not cause her to leave and hide from her family for 16 years. The pills did not cause any grief or anguish or hurt feelings.

    Blaming "the pills" is like blaming Boeing for making planes on 9/11. Just because they are there does not mean that they caused the disaster.

    May 23, 2008 at 9:45 am |
  2. Timmothy D. Kerns

    Thank you so much for exposing this. The Pharmaceutical industry thanks you too! If not for hard hitting stories such as this, our poor drug companies might go broke! The real reason for your story isn't that you are "shocked" at how easy it is to get these drugs, it's how cheap that poor people can obtain needed drugs. Why should I pay $34.00 for a 60 day supply of my blood pressure medication, when I can go to my neighborhood legal "dope dealer" (Pharmacy) and pay $65.00 for a 30 day supply! Am I the only one who has no health care insurance, and doesn't qualify for Medicaid? Oh well, I suppose you are doing me a favor in the long run. If I have to choose between medication and food for my family, when I die, maybe then they can qualify for Welfare. Keep up the good work for the Pharmaceutical industry, and thank you to all of you shocked "sheeple" out there. The shareholders appreciate it!

    May 23, 2008 at 7:33 am |
  3. Lyle Gerard

    PS . . . Anderson, thanks for your story and focus. It's about 80% accurate but never trust an addict who only pretends to be in recovery, like Nancy. As I said, her addiction is deeper than any of us can comprehend . . .

    May 23, 2008 at 2:44 am |
  4. Lyle Gerard

    Well, after reading your article, I know Nancy. I lived with her for several years. Look at her picture. She's looking to the side, "askance" if you will. Her addiction is deeper thn anyone of us can comprehend. As soon as she can, she'll get the fix. As a former roommate, I've seen her "white-knuckle" it for weeks until the next shipment. This situation for Nancy is a simple thing to handle. Not only does she think that she is smarter than the nurses (in fact she told me that she was a psychiatric nurse, as it turns out she was one of the patients) and smarter than the doctors, but she'll also agree, that yes, she had a problem – - – but she got caught, look at her face. She's "pissed". Oh well, I still miss her. Just don't be surprised when she falls off again. She's probably one of the most deeply ill people I've ever known and who I've really loved as an interesting person. I was shocked to hear that mostly everything she told me and my friends was untrue, that she has family and grandchildren and relatives. to her family . . . I wish I'd known . . . but she told me that everyone in her family was gone . . . that you Cheryl, had committed suicide, and that your brother was hit and killed by a drunk driver in Arizona. I didn't know, I saw only a few pictures of you and your brother, no pictures of anyone else... so why should I not believe Nancy. Except now I understand the depth of her addition, of one's addiction to online prescriptions. I tried to monitor what she got in the mail, but it wasn't always possible. She got more than I knew. I did understand it a little because once or twice a month Nancy would aske me: "Are you mad at me?" It was only after a few months that I know that was taking too much stuff and would make her eat something. Nancy Fitzpatrick to me and my friends is a super smart and interesting person. Smarter than all of us, like all addicits are, and I hope that you, her family and friends, take good care of her. But watch out . . . she's smarter than all of us, blogs, feelings, etc. We only "caught her" in a little trap . . . she'll figure a way to get her fix.

    and I can hardly wait to see how she does it . . . (: )

    May 23, 2008 at 2:33 am |
  5. Annie Kate

    It is great that you found your sister. I know that at least that part is a joy to you. I don't know what to think about the internet drugs part – I know that there are lots of doctors that will write prescriptions for just about anything without a medical reason for them – its not just over the internet. I think perhaps that the internet is not the root problem – the doctors that write or rubber stamp the prescriptions are; the internet has just made it easier to do it in mass.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    May 22, 2008 at 9:36 pm |
  6. cheryl summers

    Nancy is my mother, she deserted me when i had just had my second child, I was only 20 yrs old at the time a when she left . I needed he the most then, I had a 1 yr. old and a 7day old and living in a horriable situation at the time. I needed her then. but now 17 yrs
    later and an other child. they are 18.17,16, She doesn't know that she has three wonderfull grandchildren. When my uncle called to tell me that she was alive i freaked out!!!!!!! We all thought she was dead, but know we know that she has only been 2 states away from us and not try to get in contact us any of us. How dare she!!!! I have lived in the same county all my life and she couldn't try to find us and my brother and myself tryed to look for her and send letter's to adress that i found on line and no one sent any thing back saying that they were my mother.And i sent letters to everyone by her name. Now you all may think that i am cold hearted for saying this but i have no desier to see her or to have any contact with her. She can get pills on line but can't seem to try to find her own kids.

    May 22, 2008 at 7:16 pm |
  7. April

    I don't understand. If it's illegal, why are they not being shut down and prosecuted? You can google a name of a drug, and you instantly have access to dozens of websites that sell it, they even advertise "no prescription needed." Since when are criminals allowed to blantantly break the law and nothing is done? What is going on? Who is dropping the ball on this?

    May 22, 2008 at 6:44 pm |
  8. donna

    I carefully selected a Canadian pharmacy – Canada should be safe and trustworthy, right? – to purchase gastric reflux meds that were too expensive through the normal channels. The pills arrived in a folder marked "Made in India." Nevertheless, I dutifully started taking them. After a week or so, my symptoms were so bad that I could not lie down. I called the pharmacy to complain. The response was "NO REFUNDS." I explained I had carefully chosen Canada, and their website said CANADIAN drugs from CANADIAN pharmacies. They directed me to small print that said they could substitute drugs from other countries. I read on and pointed out that it also said they had to notify me if the drugs were not from Canada. Getting nowhere, I asked to speak to a supervisor. S/he was not available and would call me back. Yeah, right! No call, no refund, pills in the trash. I guess I should be thankful I didn't get rat poison or something.

    Stay away from internet drug dealers! Donna

    May 22, 2008 at 6:39 pm |
  9. Ann

    Stop trying to use stories like this to control every part of our lives. What next? How about the rope manufacturers for those who hang themselves?

    Ban knives? Local retail store that sells beer and wine?

    This over control has to stop somewhere. People, not government, not CNN, not CBS, are the ones responsible for what they do.

    May 22, 2008 at 6:25 pm |
  10. Suzana Spach--Roisman

    Voici the horrors of the Internet– anyone has acess to just everything everywhere. and at whatever time zone! Watch out ,be careful and verify any piece of information that flies across your screen !

    Continue the good work of detecting these awful erros , alas so frequent all over this planet.

    Regards from Rio, Brazil.
    S S-R.

    May 22, 2008 at 6:17 pm |
  11. brian

    I think its very sad what happened to ur sisater, however I do not agee with shutting these sights down. We are all responsibe for our actions, and addicts will get drugs from the street, so it protects no one to shut these sights down. the war on drugs id a farce!!!

    May 22, 2008 at 6:10 pm |
  12. Dave

    Prescription drugs are prescription for a reason,

    May 22, 2008 at 6:04 pm |
  13. Connie, NJ

    It should be obvious to all who read the story that Mr. Fitzpatrick's sister is indeed dealing with mental health issues that go beyond addiction. The article demonstrates both a huge hole in the fight against prescription drug addiction and the appalling lack of affordable, accessible mental health care. Both should cause us to be gravely concerned.

    May 22, 2008 at 5:55 pm |
  14. Janet Studer

    Being able to order drugs over the internet isn't the only problem with free flowing drugs today. Oregon has a policy of prescribing mega dosages of drugs to heroin addicts who are allegedly trying to get off heroin (methadone) a drug that is so addictive I hear it's worse then heroin. A doctor will prescribe a huge amount of methadose/methadone to known heroin addicts if they will sign a contract with that doctor to not be selling or giving away those drugs. In 2005 my daughters ex-husband had just gotten a new months supply of 360 methadone tablets of methadone. He then sells 1/2 of these on the streets and lives off the proceeds from month to month. He also sold several to my 33 year old daughter; mother of three children who died from taking them with some legally prescribed muscle relaxer for fibrmyalgia. Yet nothing was done to this man because of it. Granted it was my daughters choice to take them but unfortunately she did not know mixing certain drugs could kill; she paid the ultimate price as did her three children. The state of Oregon has no program to control these drugs yet they are referred to as "a controlled" substance.

    May 22, 2008 at 5:30 pm |
  15. AAlice

    Alcoholism is a major problem for millions of people yet liquor is sold on every street corner. Addiction is the issue, not just ease of access to your drug of choice. Addicts will seek and find their intoxicant of choice, deal with the addiction not just the ease of access.

    May 22, 2008 at 5:24 pm |
  16. Billy Gibbons, Houston

    Why did she have your credit card with her?
    Was the classmate that "rescued" her male?
    Why did she try to kill herself?
    Why did she finds a new place to live instead of with her kids or husband?

    There is so much information missing from this story that I'm not sure even what part "internet drugs" had to play if at all. It sounds like there was a LOT MORE going on that needs to be "fixed" than buying over the net.

    May 22, 2008 at 4:37 pm |
  17. Jessica

    Any doctor associated with these companies, should get their Practicing license thrown out. They need to be more aware of what they are signing on to. It's basically saying they commited murder. They should be charged with Cospiracy to commit murder, or however that goes. I am happy you were able to finally know what happened to your sister. If that would of happened, I would of freaked out. I am very close with my sisters, and I can't imagine something like that happening to our family. Power to you for getting these people out of business.

    May 22, 2008 at 4:29 pm |
  18. Maria C

    Wow... GREAT story and a scary thought. Scary to think that it's that easy to get a hold of addicting drugs. What if this happens to teenagers or young adults, we all know how easy it is to get on the internet these days. It's up to us as parents to keep a watchful eye.

    May 22, 2008 at 3:46 pm |
  19. Melissa

    It's absolutely astonishing to read about how easy it is to get such powerful prescription pills off the internet when I have such a hard time just getting stronger cold medicine from my doctor without seeing him first. I guess that's where the difference lies...my doctor has ethics and a true compassion for my health and these doctors who sell their names do not. Laws have got to be changed with the drug industry in general – they are killing us with high prices and useless drugs that do more harm then good.

    May 22, 2008 at 3:19 pm |
  20. Cameron Smith

    This craze, coupled with recent reports of ineffective, potentially toxic knock-off prescription drugs, is a recipe for disaster. These doctors that the article mentions are putting their rubber stamp on phony prescriptions should all lose their licenses and never be allowed to practice again. Just another glaring example of commerce without consequence. SAD!

    May 22, 2008 at 3:18 pm |
  21. F. Baggett

    Suicide is the death that knocks the life out of the living. Finding your sister will give thousands a second chance at life. Tell her every single day what a blessing she is to us all and how much we all love her. She is brave for sharing her story. When it is all said and done, Nancy will be the hero for allowing you to tell her story so that together the two of you could help others. I will continue to keep her and your family in my prayers....She is so lucky to have you.

    May 22, 2008 at 3:13 pm |
  22. April Campbell

    Your article should have been on the lack of affordable psychiatric care in this country. If she had had that, she wouldn't have been ordering meds off the internet in the first place and possibly never left home to start with.

    May 22, 2008 at 3:11 pm |
  23. linda simeone

    WOW, compelling story. I wouldn't even attempt to buy drugs on the internet, not even PET MEDS for my animals. It seems too rinky dink. But I agree with you, what a horror story. Shame on the DEA and other regulatory agencies for allowing this to happen, what about the Physician's Board, allowing doctors to practice like this. Also, isn't there some other governing agency that intervenes when crossing state borders. It all sounds very illicit, highly illegally and morally wrong! Good for you for making people aware of this new horror that we are facing. Shut them down, fine them! Put them out of business, revoke any doctor's license who attempts to fill drugs on the internet!
    Linda Simeone, CA

    May 22, 2008 at 2:31 pm |
  24. CherieL

    My greatest concern has been the quality of the drugs. Who knows where they are being manufactured or if the dosages are correct?

    I had only a vague idea what the verification process was, as the only medication I've ordered through an online pharmacy was a non-prescription acne cream.

    This article has certainly been an eye-opener! Any health professional enabling addiction is irresponsible at best, and at worst, a drug dealer who ought to be stripped of his/her license(s) and made to pay personally for the damage done. Medical malpractice insurance should NOT pay for such a person's abuse.

    May 22, 2008 at 2:29 pm |
  25. Daniela

    Horrible story.
    This line : "I owe that much to my sister" – the worst. If you were out of touch with your sister for 16 yrs and made no effort to contact her BEFORE she nearly died, you owe her much more than using her story for the advantage of CNN.
    Also, these people purchase the drugs on their own. No one forces them... Addicts will find something else to be addicted to if they aren't able to get meds online, and the others.. I would hope people have the common sense to realize they should speak to a doctor before popping 100 pills a day..... These websites prey on their weaknesses, but so do tobacco companies, liquor stores....and?

    May 22, 2008 at 2:27 pm |
  26. jacq

    although there are problems with online pharmacies – they have helped me.

    there have been times in my life where i did not have health insurance. i am on prescription medication for depression – and before claritin went over the counter for allergies.

    i went to canada for my claratin and to the internet for my antidepressants. i knew what my dose was – and i could afford the $50 they charged for a doctor's visit – i couldn't afford the over $100 to visit my physician. so i went on line. and i was able to stay on my meds and stay healthy.

    sure there are down sides, but i was very grateful.

    May 22, 2008 at 2:19 pm |
  27. Julie Zimmerman

    Addiction is not as simple as shutting down internet pharmacies – for people can still visit a doctor and have them write a script for seemingly anything they want.
    As someone who did at one time have a script doctor, I know how easy it was to visit him and walk out with perfectly legal prescriptions for highly addictive medication.
    Of course, I am one of the lucky folks who survived – this is after admitting myself to a psychiatric hospital and staying there for almost 30 days – followed by raising my hand in every 12 step meeting I could find. Again, I am one of the lucky ones – for somehow I knew deep inside of me that I would surely kill myself if I didn't get off the prescription merry-go-round

    May 22, 2008 at 1:57 pm |
  28. Ann

    What a wonderful thing that your sister's classmate found her and reached out, and that you are back in her life. I agree with you that narcotics should not be so easy to get in this manner. On the other hand, I take blood pressure medication that works for me, but it isn't always easy to get my prescription refilled. I have no health insurance and the process for my refills is endless – I usually have to go to the free clinic or San Francisco General, which takes hours. That involves missing time from work. With some strict guidelines, maybe these online pharmacies could do a service as long as they were not dealing with addictive narcotics.

    May 22, 2008 at 1:49 pm |
  29. Lance Taylor

    Are you kidding me? Accept responsibilty for your own actions. There are tons of things available to use or purchase or acquire from a million different outlets. YET I am responsible enough to not indulge in their service(s).

    On-line pharmacies might be a problem, but it's, at least, the third or fourth level down on the totem pole. With/Without God, Self, then we can look elsewhere.

    May 22, 2008 at 1:49 pm |
  30. Kansas

    wow – good job

    May 22, 2008 at 1:31 pm |
  31. Rhonda

    I was absolutely amazed to learn that prescription drugs are sold over the internet. I wear contact lenses and cannot purchase them online without having my eye doctor fax my prescription to the provider. In addition, where I reside wine cannot be shipped within my state because of the possibility that minors would making purchases. How is it that prescription drugs can be sold this way without any monitoring or regulating?

    May 22, 2008 at 1:31 pm |
  32. elaine, pa

    Glad you are covering this story and that your sister is doing well.

    I would like to know why these doctors don't have their licenses revoked immediately. If there is no law currently on the books, then where are the Medical Associations in all of this? You would think they'd have an interest in preserving their professionalism.

    Of course, the other issue here is why your sister would not legitimately seek a doctor's help. A very difficult obstacle that our family is totally helpless (legally) to resolve with an ill cousin. And as you've also experienced, it goes on and on and on for years, isolating her, and also draining those trying to help.

    May 22, 2008 at 1:15 pm |
  33. mike w

    These Internet Pharmacies are ruthless. My wife ordered diet pills online once. They Continued to call for years afterwards to sell refills, even when I or she declined, they would call over and over trying to refill or sell more prescription meds. We even requested them to stop calling. I don't even answer the phone anymore, it was so bad.

    I think these places may have a place in the market but they need more Accountability and oversight. DEA or FDA needs to restrict these quacks, i mean doctors from "rubberstamping" any script.

    May 22, 2008 at 1:13 pm |
  34. John

    Yes, down with the internet. People should just go over the border to Mexico like old times.. But seriously, this is an amazing story, and good luck to your sister. Drug addiction is serious

    May 22, 2008 at 1:10 pm |
  35. Gilmore

    I think the government should know where I am and what I am doing at all times. Otherwise how will they protect me from ordering a bunch of pills and eating them? Or stuffing handfuls of broken glass down my shorts? It's just wrong that I am able to do these things.

    May 22, 2008 at 1:01 pm |
  36. Amy

    Not everyone abuses the internet. It's like anything else, there will always be someone to take advantage. These people are adults they need to take responsibility for themselves.

    May 22, 2008 at 1:00 pm |
  37. Sharon from Indy

    David:
    What happen to your sister and how she obtained the medications through the internet is actually why I go through a local pharmacy. At least someone is accountable for the distribution.

    I know that mail order or internet pharamacies are popular especially when the cost of medications are skyrocketing. Even becoming more popular are overseas purchases of medications. Though there are legitimate businesses distributing medications online, if someone is addicted, they will use and abuse the system like your sister.

    As for the doctors who sell their souls to the devil with a rubber stamp, they should be held accountable as well.

    I am happy you found your sister. Mental illnesses affect every family in the US in one way or another. I also feel if the mental illnesses were more open, it might me easier to diagonsis and treat. In addition, medical insurance companies despite medications for individuals and families with mental illnesses. When they need the meds the most is when they don't need the stress of fighting for them with an insurance company.

    Good luck in your investigate.

    May 22, 2008 at 12:37 pm |
  38. Justin, Chicago

    This story upsets me. Doctors should know better than to prescribe meds like that. I want to use harsher language in this comment but then I know you won’t post it.

    May 22, 2008 at 12:02 pm |
  39. Tammy, Berwick, LA

    I'm glad you found your sister and she is becoming o.k. again. At least your family finally found answers. My first cousin suddenly cut our entire family off twelve years ago after a psychotic verbal attack on our grandmother, and I often wonder if my cousin is all right or even alive. Prescription drug addiction is scary, and these internet providers make it so easy. These docs that allow their licenses to be used and have no clue supposedly should lose them. Sadly, though, many doctors provide meds and don't keep up with whether or not they're addicting patients or not (I'm talking docs with patients they've seen for years). Many times, physicians don't realize what they are prescribing and how it leads to addiction. Addicts aren't going to cut off their suppliers and be truthful, either. Good luck trying to shut these legal dealers down. You'd be doing all of us a favor.

    May 22, 2008 at 11:45 am |
  40. Meg

    I'm so glad that you've found your sister. I can't imagine the relief that your family feels – especially her children. Do you know the circumstances that surrounded her disappearance? Did she just wake up one morning and choose to leave?

    I ask this because a decade ago my mother and brother (4.5 at the time, I was 20 years old) went missing from their home without any of their belongings. In 10 years, there has never been sight or sound from the two of them....

    May 22, 2008 at 10:58 am |
  41. Cindy

    Being able to order any pills what so ever on the internet is a very dangerous thing. There is just no telling what these drugs are being used for and who are using them. And there really is no way to know!

    May 22, 2008 at 10:48 am |
  42. Rocky Macy (Goodyear, AZ)

    Wow! Great story! Shut 'em down!

    May 22, 2008 at 10:39 am |