Whitesburg KY
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Doctor’s death fuels talk of solutions


Brooks Webb says he knows what he is supposed to do if an unruly patient shows up at his pharmacy demanding pain pills, but sometimes he figures safety trumps protocol — and even the law.

“If you have someone there who is not rational, I’m almost going to say that I’m going to fill his prescription to get him out of my hair and away from my staff,” Webb said Monday night at a public forum on eastern Kentucky’s drug abuse problem. “Yes, you’re breaking the law, but I want my staff and me to go home in the evening.”

Webb’s business partner is the pharmacist of a Perry County clinic where a doctor, Dennis Sandlin, was shot to death last month, allegedly by a patient denied a pain scrip. Webb was in Hazard at the time of the shooting but got a call from his partner during the incident, when some of the office staff were barricaded in the pharmacy while the gunman was in the clinic.

“It was just a feeling of helplessness,” said Webb, who works at a different pharmacy.

Toward the end of a twohour discussion Monday that called for new solutions to the old problem of prescription drug abuse in eastern Kentucky, Webb pointed out that some ideas that may seem simple are actually much more difficult in practice. For example, while only about a quarter of doctors in Kentucky regularly use a computer program that monitors prescriptions statewide, many find themselves under immense pressure, occasionally even threats, to give the patients what they want.

Sandlin’s death prompted the scheduling of community forums on the thorny issue in Hazard, Pikeville, Pineville, Morehead and culminating in a daylong symposium March 6 in Hazard. Sandlin’s daughter, Danielle Sandlin, has been active in the planning, although she didn’t attend Monday.

Karen Engle, executive director of the anti-drug task force Operation UNITE, said the shooting should be a call to action.

“If that isn’t enough to make us angry, enough to make us stand up and say we have had enough, then our region is dead to begin with,” Engle said. “Dr. Sandlin did not have to die in vain.”

More than 60 people attended Monday’s first forum in Hazard, a few miles from the Cornettsville clinic where Sandlin was killed. Among them was Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, a physician and friend of the slain doctor.

“Physicians aren’t trained to be lie detectors,” Mongiardo said. “We’ve developed a double-edged sword where we’re not treating pain as well as we should, but we’re treating people who don’t have pain with narcotics.”

Although there were several representatives from the law enforcement community, including police officers and judges, one Kentucky official said often it is too late to start subscribing treatment for offenders at that step in the process.

“We wait too long,” said Van Ingram, director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. “It’s almost always when we’re at the courthouse door.”

Perry District Judge Leigh Anne Stephens, who presided over the early court proceedings against John C. Combs, the man accused of killing Sandlin, said future generations need to beat the drug abuse problem in part to help improve eastern Kentucky’s image.

“There’s been a war declared on this part of the country since I was 6 year old or younger,” Stephens said. “First it was the war on poverty. Now it’s the war on drugs. It’s always a negative. The reputation is inbred, ignorant, lazy.”

David Matthews, director of adult services at Kentucky River Community Care in Jackson, said he is hopeful the doctor’s killing may finally push tangible progress in the battle against drugs.

“Doctor Sandlin’s tragic death can be turned into something positive for eastern Kentucky that we can engage the medical community,” Matthews said. “Do it in his name. It could be a lasting memorial.”

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