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INVESTIGATION: Cincinnati's heroin heartbreak

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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) -

Heroin invaded Michelle Conda's life on April 23rd. Yet she'd never touched the stuff.

Conda, a music professor at the University of Cincinnati and professional pianist, was riding home from campus on her beloved red scooter. Along Harrison Avenue, just blocks from home, another driver appeared in her lane.

"All I saw is a van coming at me," Conda said.

She tried to swerve but says the van swerved, too.

It hit her head-on.

Suddenly, she became a pianist unable to play; a U.C. music professor unable to teach; a woman unable to move.

As she lay there bleeding on the asphalt, a Good Samaritan reached out.

"And she was the only one that would hold my hand," Conda recalled. "I was like, I just needed someone to hold my hand, I was in such pain. And nobody wanted to touch me, of course, because they're afraid of moving me."

Soon, an ambulance arrived to take her to the hospital.

And that's when she learned the truth.

"As I was in the van waiting to go away, the emergency van, I heard someone say something like, ‘We had another call at the same address for a heroin overdose,'" Conda remembers. "So then I started putting two and two together about what happened."

Conda had become the latest victim in the resurgence of a drug in Cincinnati that community leaders here say they haven't seen in decades.

Heroin is suddenly the "it" drug again.

A FOX19 News investigation reveals the costs: heroin overdoses skyrocketing by 670% between 2004 and 2010 in the emergency departments of Cincinnati and Hamilton County hospitals. Deaths from heroin jumping from 5 in 2010 in Campbell County, Kentucky, to 14 in just the first six months of this year.

"I would consider it alarming," said Dr. Mark Schweitzer, who's been the coroner of Campbell County since 1998. He provided FOX19 with the heroin death data for his county.

"When I first became coroner over 10 years ago," he said, "I never saw a heroin death. Most of the toxicology-related deaths that we were seeing were either prescription overdoses or other illegal drugs."

But now police agencies, doctors, and pharmacies are cracking down on addicts who were used to going from place-to-place to get their OxyContin high. With that crackdown, addicts are following the path of least resistance and are buying heroin from drug dealers. It's easier and it's cheaper.

"Typically a street dose of heroin will run anywhere between $10-$20 for a good high," said Capt. Stephen Luebbe, who oversees the Cincinnati Police Department's Narcotics and Vice Section.

An 80-mg OxyContin tablet can cost $65-$80, when purchased on the street.

According to Dr. Schweitzer, heroin's effect on the body is close to that of a prescription drug like OxyContin.

"Most people that are doing heroin, it's to function," said Dr. Schweitzer.

He went on to say that people typically use heroin for its calming effect.

"It's an effect to literally function and to be able to deal with life just day-to-day maybe," Dr. Schweitzer added.

Capt. Luebbe is noticing the trend on the street.

"It seems that we're seeing about a 30-40% increase in heroin, especially in the last year, maybe two years now," he said. "The cartels from Mexico are bringing it up through California, through Chicago down to Cincinnati, and some of it is also coming up through Atlanta into Cincinnati."

He says drug smugglers use Interstates 71, 74, and 75 to bring it here.

The driver of the van that hit Michelle Conda admitted to officers that "he passed out due to a heroin overdose and does not remember the events of the crash," according to the police report.

When FOX19 first visited Conda she was confined to a wheelchair. The crash had broken her left leg and severely injured her left arm and hand. For a piano player, that's not good.

"My life," she said, "my life has changed so much I can't even tell you."

No longer could she enjoy campfires in the backyard. She couldn't get there. Nor could she take a shower. It's on the second floor of her house. In fact, when we saw her, she had just started being able to get out of the hospital bed that had been installed in a room on the ground floor.

"Humility, I guess, is the lesson learned," she said quietly.

The driver who hit her has not yet been charged with a crime, according to Cincinnati Police. Conda says she has been told that another round of toxicology testing is needed before authorities decide whether to prosecute him.

And when you start asking Conda if she wants the justice system to punish him, she grows silent, pausing for long stretches.

"They have assured me that he will be prosecuted," she said. "But my mixed feelings are that I know this gentleman is a working person and – and that's a good thing – to be working."

There's another pregnant pause.

It's clear she's worried the consequences of the crash may end-up crippling the driver's life.

She speaks again.

"I just hope people would watch what they do when they drive," she said.

This week, FOX19 spoke to Conda to get an update on how she's been doing since we visited her. She says she's now able to walk – and with the help of only one crutch. She plans to be back on campus in August for the new semester.

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Addicted to heroin or know someone who is? You can get help by visiting the Center for Chemical Addictions and Treatment's website or calling them at (513) 381-6672. Here's a list of other treatment centers, too.

There are also therapists in Cincinnati who specialize in treating addiction.

In addition, there are many Narcotics Anonymous support groups available in the Tri-State. Here's a list of their meeting times.

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