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:
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.