TAUNTON — Lori and Dave Gonsalves were watching “The Bachelor” in their living room last July when they got the call.
Their 25-year-old son, Cory Palazzi, had overdosed on heroin and was hospitalized.
It had happened once before, but Lori Gonsalves said the news still caught her by surprise. Palazzi, a former National Honor Society student and athlete, had just completed an addiction treatment program, and she had thought he was doing well.
Still, as she set off for Falmouth Hospital, Gonsalves presumed she would just pick up her son, take him to a treatment center, and “he would be fine.”
But he would not be fine. Her son was on a respirator, and hospital officials were talking of calling a priest. The overdose had stopped his heart and cut off his oxygen.
Palazzi survived, but at a price.
As Massachusetts faces an uptick in heroin overdoses, what happened to Palazzi is happening to an increasing number of drug users, officials say. Addicts survive an overdose, but are left with damage to their minds and bodies. Like Palazzi, who suffered brain injury and loss of eyesight, they struggle with the simple tasks of everyday life. Families are forever changed, burdened by a different sense of loss.
‘The number of patients that have brain changes as a result of substance abuse is significant and oftentimes overlooked.’Dr. Frank R. Sparadeo
Palazzi said he is not optimistic that his condition will improve.
“It’s going to suck,” he said. “I don’t see myself anywhere.”
Palazzi’s speech is slow and sometimes difficult to understand. He walks with a limp and struggles with such tasks as dressing himself, keeping his balance, walking, eating, and even controlling muscles in his fingers to keep them straight.
Because he is legally blind, Palazzi cannot drive.
He no longer uses heroin. “In reality he probably never was going to stop until he died, and this here was, I don’t know, a way of getting him to stop without dying,” said Palazzi’s stepfather Dave Gonsalves, 47, a middle school science teacher. “So it’s kind of . . . a tragedy-slash-mixed-blessing.”
After surviving the overdose, Palazzi remained at Falmouth Hospital for two weeks before going to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown. Within 24 hours, Palazzi came down with an infection and was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital, his mother said. He stayed there for about a week before returning to Spaulding. On Aug. 23, Palazzi came home and started the process of cobbling together a life with new limitations.
“He has a hard time tying shoes, eating, zippering,” Lori Gonsalves said. “I bought him some adaptive equipment that helps somewhat, like a big chunky fork. But you know he can’t use a knife. He doesn’t have the skills to cut, just like some simple tasks he can’t do.”
Palazzi said he feels that his efforts to regain function have “reached a plateau.” He added: “I don’t get any better at speech or anything.”
His memory of the overdose is hazy. “I don’t remember . . . anything about it.” He said the first thing he recalls was “waking up with the tubes down my throat.”
Federal and state officials said they do not know how many people have a brain injury as a result of overdoses.
Dr. Frank R. Sparadeo, a neuropsychologist based in Rhode Island, said that as opiate abuse has increased, he has seen a rise in the number of people seeking tests for brain damage related to overdoses. He said the problem is not limited to opiate abusers.
“The number of patients that have brain changes as a result of substance abuse is significant and oftentimes overlooked in most treatment facilities because most substance abuse treatment centers don’t have neuropsychologists and neurologists,” he said.
He added that substance abusers who are diagnosed with cognitive impairments and get treated have lower drug relapse rates.
Now Palazzi’s life mostly revolves around therapy and doctor’s appointments, which his mother ferries him to between her work commitments. He attends speech, occupational, and physical therapy twice a week.
Once weekly, he meets with a relapse prevention group and one-on-one with a counselor. There are also appointments with a primary care physician, brain injury doctor, neurologist, and neuro-opthamologist, his mother said.
He lives at his parents’ home, where tokens of his accomplishments as a high school athlete and student are displayed, including pictures of Palazzi playing baseball, posing in his football jersey, and being inducted into the National Honor Society.
Baseball trophies and a Taunton High School football helmet sit in Palazzi’s bedroom. So does a poster that reads, “Believe in miracles and second chances.”
It was signed by well-wishers at an event his parents organized to raise money for Gosnold on Cape Cod, an addiction treatment center where Palazzi went for treatment.
Before addiction took control of his life, Palazzi worked in the business development department at a car dealership and sold cars, his mother said.
She said Palazzi was put on the path to drug abuse while taking painkillers after surgery to repair a shoulder injury. During his first year as a nursing student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Palazzi said, he drank to excess as he struggled with anxiety and depression and then turned to painkillers to self-medicate.
“If I didn’t drink so much, I think things would have worked out differently, because I wouldn’t have been sick all the time and then used OxyContin to feel better,” he said.
When OxyContin pills got too expensive, Palazzi said, he turned to heroin, which was cheaper. He underwent numerous rounds of treatment, including two occasions when he agreed to be civilly committed so he could get help in a long-term program.
Before the overdose left him in his current state, Palazzi had completed a 30-day inpatient treatment program at Gosnold in Falmouth, which his parents said they paid nearly $7,000 for him to attend.
He also tried the medications buprenorphine and naltrexone to treat his addiction, his parents said.
“We tried every avenue we could to try to get him on the right path, and it continuously failed,” Dave Gonsalves said.
Even though he does not abuse drugs anymore, Palazzi, who is now 26, said he still struggles with addiction and the powerful hold it has on him. He still craves drugs. And in his dreams, Palazzi said, he is driving his old Toyota Camry to get drugs so he could get high.
“I would feel good for a little while, that rush,” he said.
His mother tried to reason with him.
“It’s temporary though,” she said. “It would probably kill you.”