The best news Ed Bisch ever read was splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the country last week: "In Guilty Plea, OxyContin Maker to Pay $600 Million."
His obsession with Purdue Pharma, the company which manufactures the painkiller, started six years ago when Bisch discovered his namesake son dead in his Fishtown bed in February 2001. After finding Eddie — he was 18 — Bisch set out to confront his son's friends. He found them congregated on the same Cumberland Street Laundromat stoop where they always gathered, even in the middle of February. "What did he take last night?" Bisch asked. "Don't lie. Just tell me. I need to know."
Eddie's friends looked at one another and decided to spill it. Bisch wasn't messing around.
"Oxy. He took Oxy at a party last night."
"Oxy? What's Oxy? What is that?"
Bisch had no reason to know that OxyContin was all the rage among Fishtown teens at the time. It was the new party drug making the rounds the way Ecstasy had a few years before. His son's friends told him there were five houses on the block where they could get it on demand.
Bisch also didn't know Philadelphia was in the midst of a crisis; there'd been 20 deaths in the previous four months (six of them in Fishtown) involving oxycodone, the narcotic in OxyContin. But Bisch had no idea his son was dabbling. After all, Eddie was a good student, a soccer player with lots of friends, a rosy-cheeked picture of teenage innocence. But now Eddie was dead, so later that night, the third-generation Fishtown lifer and son of a retired Philly cop started a campaign that would change his life, and a lot of other lives.
Bisch faxed urgent messages to local schools, warning them about the dangers of OxyContin and a few days after Eddie's death, Bisch also led an emergency neighborhood town-hall gathering attended by hundreds of local parents. He also held press conferences, and not too long after that, he had a hastily prepared www.oxyabusekills.com site up and running. He vigilantly maintains it to this day, spreading a simple message: This stuff is killing our kids and we need to do something about it.
Bisch was never bashful about laying much of the blame at Purdue Pharma's feet. The company sold more than a billion dollars worth of the drug that year, and some of it wound up in the hands of Fishtown kids who otherwise wouldn't have had access to such a powerful drug. These tiny pills — smaller than aspirin — were manufactured to look safe and harmless by a company that didn't seem particularly concerned about where the pills went once they were shipped and the sale was logged.
When Purdue Pharma's PR team saw Bisch's site, they offered condolences that he felt were phony, and gave him reasons why he should change his message. But Bisch, who says he felt like he was "getting played," didn't need a PR executive to explain anything. In his mind, a greedy corporation wanted to move as much product as possible and didn't care who it hurt in the process.
From there, the attention came fast. The site's guest book swelled with testimonials (there are now almost 700 pages of them) from other parents who had lost their children. And while Purdue maintained that less than 1 percent of pain patients using the drug as prescribed got addicted, Bisch received hundreds of testimonials from pain patients who were hooked.
Then, there were the kids who wrote to tell Bisch that after reading about Eddie, they had second thoughts about using Oxy. Bisch was changing minds and winning hearts to the point that congressmen wanted to meet him. Attending Purdue Pharma court trials when he could, he became the public face for Oxy awareness, a soft-spoken and unassuming working-class family man with nothing to gain beyond a chance to tell his story. (One day, he got a message from a producer at MTV who wanted to add Eddie's story to their True Life series. Soon, there were cameras filming in Fishtown, interviewing Eddie's friends on the Laundromat steps.)
The OxyContin crusade gave Bisch a purpose that helped him stay busy and productive. Rather than sitting around feeling sorry for himself, Bisch worked to transform senseless tragedy into a platform for raising awareness about a nationwide public-health crisis.
Yet not all the attention was favorable. Hate mail poured in from chronic pain patients, accusing him of a hatchet job on the company that made life possible for them again. OxyContin was a miracle drug for those who really needed it, they wrote; how could anyone have a problem with that? It was Eddie's fault for abusing the drug, not Purdue's for making it.
Bisch wrote back, explaining that he wasn't trying to take anything away from them. Purdue Pharma, he told them, wasn't exclusively selling the drug to cancer and burn patients anymore; they were pushing family doctors with no pain-management experience to prescribe the potent painkiller to almost anyone who could pretend to have a knot or cramp.
Bisch didn't want the drug pulled from the market; he wanted it reclassified as for severe pain only and adequately controlled like other heavy-duty pharm narcs. Why was there never a Dilaudid epidemic? A Fentanyl epidemic? Maybe the reason was because the companies that manufactured those drugs had taken the steps necessary to make sure it didn't happen.
Bisch was called a crank, a kook, a loon. All this stuff about Purdue's unethical marketing and strong-arm sales tactics, critics claimed, were nothing more than rank conspiracy theory. He was basing his whole argument on isolated, outlier cases.
But last Thursday, Bisch said he felt largely vindicated. Three Purdue Pharma execs pleaded guilty to criminal charges that they mislead regulators, doctors and patients regarding Oxy's addiction risk. The company agreed to pay $600 million in fines, $130 million of which will pay civil litigation brought by patients and families who lost relatives to overdoses.
Currently living in Florida — he moved there in January to be closer to Eddie's godfather and other families he'd met through his Web site — Bisch deals poker in a casino near Jacksonville. Asked what he thought of last week's ruling, he said, "It's long overdue. A lot of parents I know cried tears of joy when they heard. We've been saying this company's dirty for so long, but after a while you don't think anything is going to happen to them."
But has justice been served?
"We're not satisfied," he said. "Take into account all the tragedy, all the deaths and addiction they caused, all the lies they told. They deserve jail time. They were fined $600 million. So what? They made $10 billion. We're going to get 1,000 letters to the judge before they get sentenced in July. We'll be there, with our kids' pictures. [The Purdue executives have] seen the pictures before. We want them to see them again. We want them to know we're still here."