WINCHESTER, Massachusetts — A week before Max Meehan's 23rd birthday in 2012, he used what he thought was heroin and fell asleep on the couch. The next morning when he woke up, he couldn’t move his leg.
His lack of mobility turned out to be just a temporary pinched nerve, but what alarmed his boyfriend at the time was the way Meehan kept “rediscovering” his paralysis.
“It was like every 10 minutes, it was like this discovery,” Meehan told VICE News. “So he knew that my brain was fucked up.”
Jed Barash, the neurologist on call when Meehan was brought into the hospital, now believes Meehan's episode to be the first case of amnesia associated with a fentanyl overdose. Since then, Barash and his colleagues have tracked down 17 similar cases, with the latest four testing positive for fentanyl. Previous patients weren’t specifically tested for fentanyl, but Barash suspected the drug to be the culprit from the beginning.
“Max’s case arose at the same year as the fentanyl epidemic here in Massachusetts,” Barash said.
Fentanyl is considered a safe and powerful anesthetic when used medically. But on the street, where the illicitly produced version masquerades as heroin, the drug has become the leading cause of fatal overdoses in the United States. Animal studies have shown that fentanyl in high doses can cause seizures and damage to the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center.
Years after his overdose, Meehan still has difficulty retaining basic information, including appointment times or customers' sandwich orders at work.
"It changed everything. I can't plan for things," he said. "Small things become huge to me, and my anxiety takes over, and I just like can't handle it and run away."
This is the eighth installment for our series “World of Hurt,” which examines the ways different regions are impacted by the opioid crisis. If you or anyone you know would like to share their story as part of our ongoing coverage, please email Seth Dalton and Cassandra Giraldo at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.