STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Doctors are describing a group of opioid addicts as the sickest of the sick. These are IV drug users, mostly heroin addicts who get infections in their hearts. They're being wheeled into hospitals around the country. Treating these patients is creating an ethical dilemma for doctors, and we have more this morning from Jack Rodolico of New Hampshire Public Radio.
JACK RODOLICO, BYLINE: Christopher Milford lives in East Boston, Mass. In his late 20s, he got high on some Oxycontin his friend gave him. By his early 30s, he was shooting heroin and Suboxone. Milford would reuse the same needle for a week or more. And one day out of the blue, he was so sick he couldn't get out of bed.
CHRISTOPHER MILFORD: Felt like the worst flu I ever got in my life, almost felt like a dream. I started doing weird things like putting PlayStation controllers in the sink in the bathroom. It was just weird, off the wall.
RODOLICO: Milford had endocarditis, essentially an abscess on one of his heart valves. He spent seven weeks in the hospital on IV antibiotics then things got worse. He went back home. He kept shooting drugs, and he got endocarditis two more times. Milford eventually quit drugs. But after six months sober, he was smoking a cigarette one day, and he kept dropping it. A few minutes later, he couldn't talk.
MILFORD: I wrote stroke on a piece of paper, handed it to my mother. She called the ambulance. I couldn't talk. It was scary, scariest feeling in the world. And that's why I'm talking like I am.
RODOLICO: Milford's stroke wasn't half the damage endocarditis did to him. He would undergo two heart surgeries to implant a pacemaker and replace his infected valve. At the time, he was 35 years old.
JONATHAN EDDINGER: So this is surgeries for endocarditis that's associated with IV drug use.
RODOLICO: Jonathan Eddinger is a cardiologist at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, N.H. He's showing me spreadsheets he made to track patients like Chris Milford. He says IV drug abusers who undergo heart valve replacement surgery have about a 1 percent mortality rate at his hospital. But those patients are likely to keep using drugs when they leave. So Eddinger wondered how long did they survive outside the hospital?
EDDINGER: Like, it's frustrating because I don't have a decent way of tracking them and knowing what's happening to them because we'd like to know how they're doing.
RODOLICO: To figure out how they were doing, Eddinger did something a little unusual. He took lists of patients going back five years, and he started Googling their names.
EDDINGER: What I did is I went, and I used the internet to figure out if they died afterwards in follow-up.
RODOLICO: Eddinger looked for obituaries for the hospital's patients who had their heart valves replaced. All of these patients were IV drug abusers, and he learned 25 percent had died. And the spreadsheets show something else troubling. These folks were super expensive to treat.
So the folks that come in with endocarditis two or three times are costing...
RODOLICO: ...Half a million...
EDDINGER: Half a million dollars. That's exactly right.
RODOLICO: In 2011, this New Hampshire hospital treated three IV drug abusers with endocarditis. Last year, they saw 51. Most were young in their 20s and 30s, and most were on Medicaid. Hospitals around the country are seeing this same trend, but no one is tracking the total numbers. And that means no one's adding up the total tab.
Nancy Teixeira, the director of Catholic Medical Center's cardiovascular surgical unit says the treatment for endocarditis doesn't always work if the patient is an IV drug abuser.
NANCY TEIXEIRA: Well, we've had people come in, get their valves done, go back out and use. And they either die or they show up in extremis because they've used again, and now they've re-infected their new valve. And they're right back at square one.
RODOLICO: Teixeira is left struggling with some thorny questions like how many times should you replace the same heart valve? There are no ethical guidelines for treating this patient population. So Catholic Medical Center is one of the first to write some. The guidelines call for setting patients up with drug treatment, says Dan Daly a medical ethicist with St. Anselm College who helped write them. Daly says what the guidelines are not is some kind of moral test.
DAN DALY: This is not the patient proving to the medical team that they are worthy of a new valve, that they are worthy of the surgery that we wanted to make sure that that could not happen.
RODOLICO: Dr. Jerome Kassirer is the former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine. He says whatever Catholic Medical Center comes up with, will probably be helpful for doctors and nurses around the country who are making this up as they go.
JEROME KASSIRER: There's always an incentive to do right for every individual patient, and as a consequence, they're going to opt for treating the patient as if the patient wasn't addicted.
RODOLICO: Chris Milford's addiction is what caused his endocarditis, and endocarditis is what drove him to quit drugs. He's two years sober and still trying to regain his voice.
MILFORD: The damage is already done, but I've been clean ever since and no desire to start using drugs at all.
RODOLICO: What's unclear is how many more people are still stuck in a cycle of IV drug abuse that's causing deadly infections, driving a complex ethical debate and swelling a massive price tag. For NPR News, I'm Jack Rodolico.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.