LEXINGTON, Ky. — Two Kentucky mothers touched by the tragedy of prescription drug abuse are the faces of a new statewide billboard campaign driving home the dangers of popping pills outside a doctor's care.
Karen Shay, whose 19-year-old daughter, Sarah, died in 2006, said Thursday she hopes the multi-city campaign spares others from her heartbreak. Shay joined Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway in front of one of the billboards, posted along a busy Lexington thoroughfare, as they promoted the public awareness campaign.
"As a parent who has lost a child, I can tell you that is the most devastating thing that can possibly happen to any family," said Shay, a dentist in Morehead in northeastern Kentucky. "To lose someone that you dearly love who has everything going for them, to lose them to this kind of tragedy, is something that is very, very hard to overcome."
Shay's daughter died after taking methadone and Xanax at a party with friends, passing out and suffocating.
The billboards will go up in a dozen other Kentucky cities. The roadside signs note that prescription pill abuse kills more Kentuckians than vehicle crashes. The signs feature the pictures of Shay and Lynn Kissick, whose daughter, Savannah, died of an overdose of painkillers and sedatives at age 22. Kissick did not attend Thursday's event publicizing the billboard campaign.
The two women flank Conway in the billboards, which will also appear in Danville, Frankfort, Somerset, Winchester, Morehead, London, Liberty, Louisville, Richmond, Paducah, Owensboro and Covington in coming weeks.
Lamar Outdoor Advertising donated the billboard space. A grant paid for the art work displayed on the billboards.
In the past decade, prescription drug overdose deaths have doubled in Kentucky, rising to nearly 1,000 a year.
Conway cited statistics indicating that one in five Kentucky teenagers abuse prescription pills.
"We know that today, if the statistics hold up, three people are going to die in Kentucky today from prescription pill overdoses," he said.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear recently signed emergency regulations that require doctors to meet tougher prescription standards in an effort to stop drug abuse. The rules, which were given to given to state boards that oversee the medical industry, were presented to lawmakers and will remain in effect until permanent regulations are adopted.
Another way to combat the scourge is to raise public awareness, which spurred the campaign geared toward motorists, Conway said.
"As they travel our highways and they think about the fact that our highways can be dangerous, they realize that prescription painkillers are even more dangerous," Conway said.
Asked why he's shown on the billboards, Conway said it's because the fight against pill abuse has been one of his signature issues.
Shay urged families to carefully monitor and secure their prescriptions and dispose of medications no longer used. It's a message that Conway said he repeats during appearances at schools to warn of the dangers of prescription pill abuse.
When he asks teens if they know someone who has popped pills for non-prescriptive purposes, most raise their hands, Conway said. Those hands stay up when asked if it's easy to get access to prescription pills. The hands drop when asked if their parents lock their medicine cabinets.
"This is an addiction that's starting in our homes," Conway said.
Shay said her role in warning of the dangers of prescription abuse has been part of the healing from her own tragedy. She has joined Conway in speaking to students about the dangers of pill abuse.
"I don't want anyone else to have to deal with the pain and the suffering that our family has," she said.