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    As viewers watch, addicts treated

    Four teen heroin users are sent through a Tarpon Springs clinic. Their progress is taped for the Ricki Lake Show.

    By KATHERINE GAZELLA

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2000


    TARPON SPRINGS -- Followed by camera crews from the Ricki Lake Show, four teenagers came to Tarpon Springs in September with hopes of kicking their heroin habits.

    Three stayed for what is known as the Neuraad treatment, an emerging, sometimes questioned procedure in which they were put under an anesthetic while receiving medications that blocked the symptoms of withdrawal and flushed the drugs from their bodies.

    Two episodes of the Ricki Lake Show, which air today and Thursday at 5 p.m. on WMOR-Ch. 32, follow the progress of the teenagers. The shows also put the spotlight on a local clinic, one of four Neuraad rapid detoxification centers in the country.

    The teenagers were treated by Dr. Rick Sponaugle, who runs a Neuraad clinic on S Pinellas Avenue and is the chief of anesthesiology at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital.

    He said the procedure is used on people addicted to heroin, methodone and prescription painkillers. At his 3-year-old clinic, he said, the success rate is about 53 percent, far higher than success rates for other heroin addiction treatments.

    He said part of the reason for the success is that he helps patients pray and "reach out to God."

    "Many patients are hungry for spiritual healing," said Sponaugle, 44.

    Neuraad paid for the teenagers from the Ricki Lake Show to fly to the area and to go through the treatment, which normally costs about $7,000 to $8,000.

    Before their treatment, the teenagers lived "horrible" lives, producer Jamie Kotkin said.

    "Some were living in dope houses, prostituting themselves for money, stealing. Doing whatever they could to get the heroin," she said.

    The results were mixed. One of them, a 17-year-old girl from Washington, left before treatment began.

    "You can't force them. We can't lock people up. It's not a psych unit," Neuraad founder Dr. Marshall Bedder of Los Angeles said.

    The other three, two 19-year-old girls and a 19-year-old boy, stayed for the treatment. They were hospitalized at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital for about 48 hours, which included three to four hours under anesthesia. They then went to after-care programs at Teen Challenge, part of a national network of residential centers that help addicted teens.

    Traditional detoxification treatments take several more days. They also put the patients through pain, nausea and other withdrawal symptoms, which cause many patients to start re-using drugs, Bedder said.

    The Neuraad web site -- http://www.neuraad.com -- says the withdrawal under anesthetic occurs "without pain or agonizing symptoms," although Bedder said patients usually have mild symptoms.

    So far, at least two of the teens have stayed clean, said Beth Jaffe, spokeswoman for the Ricki Lake Show. She said the third person couldn't be tracked down in recent days.

    Sponaugle said one of the three, Raymond, has done particularly well. "He's a much happier person," Sponaugle said.

    It is too early to tell if they will stay off drugs and rebuild their lives, producer Kotkin said.

    "It's still a work in progress," she said.

    Some people in the drug rehabilitation field have criticized the rapid detoxification method. They argue that the results of such methods are uncertain and there is not enough independent research to support the reported success rates.

    "We haven't really seen a great deal of peer review in literature that supports the premise behind this treatment," said Robert Lubran, acting director of the Office of Pharmacologic and Alternative Therapies at the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

    Locally, Operation PAR uses other methods for treating heroin and similar addictions at its treatment centers, including a longer detoxification program and the use of methodone, an oral narcotic that allows people to ease off their addictions, said Andre Benson, a program physician with the organization.

    He said the rapid detoxification is successful at getting heroin out of people's systems. But the bigger concerns, he said, are the long-term effects of the treatment, which he said needs to be studied by outside observers.

    "I've never seen any good studies in support of the long-term effects of that approach," he said.

    -- Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or gazella@sptimes.com.

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