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Sarasota family's tragedy becomes potent symbol in the war on prescription drug abuse

The smiling girl in the photo on Attorney General Pam Bondi's desk could have been any promising Florida teen.

But with her death from an apparent prescription drug overdose in March, 18-year-old Brandi Meshad became a powerful symbol just when it was most needed.

More than another sad statistic in a drug abuse epidemic that takes at least seven Floridians a day, Brandi was the daughter of prominent parents who put to good use the public attention on their private tragedy.

"My pain doesn't go away. I know that I will live with that every day," said Brandi's mother Lisa Meshad, who met Bondi in Tallahassee shortly after her daughter's death. "But I think the pain would be greater if I watched people continue to die."

Brandi's death also resonated with Gov. Rick Scott, who knew the family personally, and with lawmakers locked in contentious debate over the pill mill crisis. And it touched Sarasota leaders who just last month enacted pain clinic restrictions even tougher than the state's, creating a model that could spread.

Certainly, the momentum to stop unscrupulous practitioners and drug seekers was intensifying long before Brandi's death. Supporters seized upon her story as one more tool of persuasion just as the commitment to fighting the crisis appeared uncertain at the start of this year's legislative session.

"She put a face with this epidemic," said Bondi, who wore a purple rubber bracelet in Brandi's honor until the pill mill bill passed the Legislature in May.

"This was a young woman who came from a good family — two loving parents and three loving sisters who knew she had a problem, and they were doing everything in their power to prevent it" from escalating.

"She's become a symbol to parents that this can happen to anyone."

• • •

When Brandi Meshad died on March 8, apparently of an accidental prescription drug overdose while visiting her grandparent's Sarasota home, the news made headlines.

In Tallahassee, Bondi read the story and printed the teen's picture to keep on her desk. She started mentioning Brandi Meshad's name as she lobbied for tougher laws against pill mills.

Gov. Scott and legislators were locked in a bitter stalemate over whether to kill a statewide drug database that would let doctors and pharmacists know when drug seekers shop for high doses of prescription narcotics.

The fight only intensified the spotlight on Florida's sordid reputation as pill mill capital of the nation.

Gavin Meshad contacted Bondi shortly after Brandi's death, unaware that his daughter's picture already sat on her desk. He wanted to talk about the pill mill legislation.

The grieving parents also visited the offices of legislative leaders such as Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who has championed laws to fight prescription drug abuse for years.

Two weeks after Brandi's death, Lisa Meshad and one of Brandi's sisters were in Tallahassee, passing out brochures and purple bracelets. They met with Bondi and cried together.

"I was a prosecutor for so long that I've seen many victims' families and all the different ways that people handle grief," said Bondi, who was with the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.

"I've never seen it happen so fast, where a family right away knew that they could make a change, they could have a positive impact."

• • •

Gavin Meshad talked to Scott — his one-time boss at the HCA hospital chain, the health care giant that Scott led.

The governor also discussed the legislation with Brandi's grandfather, John Meshad, a Sarasota lawyer and real estate developer who once sold a hospital to HCA.

Scott remembered meeting Brandi as a little girl. He said his heart went out to the Meshads — as it does to other families who share similar stories.

"I think every story that you have — and we have seven stories a day — has a very positive impact on making sure that something happens," Scott said in an interview Thursday, noting that he has also seen his brother battle alcoholism and drug abuse.

"You hear these stories and it inspires you to get something done," he added.

By the session's end, his concerns about patient privacy addressed, Scott supported the drug database. At the same time, battling legislators reached a compromise on other measures to combat the pill mill crisis.

Scott invited Lisa Meshad to stand with him as he signed the new pill mill bill into law on June 3 at the Falkenburg Road Jail in Hillsborough County.

"It was bittersweet. I was happy to know that we are starting to get it and make changes," she said.

"At the same time, I would give anything for it not to be Brandi as the reason why I was there."

• • •

Brandi Meshad was supposed to start studying broadcast journalism at the University of Alabama this summer. She was athletic, a strong student with a photographic memory, and strikingly beautiful, with dark hair and light eyes.

In her journal entries, the teenager nicknamed "BeBe" wrote of the pain of young romance, her parents' pending divorce, her worries that she had let her family down.

Just a year and a half earlier, a friend offered Brandi an oxycodone pill because she was having trouble sleeping. Within a month, her parents saw that she had changed. They made her take a drug test and discovered she was taking a prescription opiate.

Brandi went to therapeutic programs in North Carolina and Utah.

Her addiction was openly discussed at home, where her mother carefully removed alcohol and any other possible relapse triggers from their white-columned residence.

What happened the night she died, the start of her senior year spring break, remains under investigation. Lisa Meshad doesn't believe her daughter understood what she was taking.

"It was a parent's worst fear," she said, noting that Brandi had been clean for months. "It was one night, one choice that ended tragically."

That same week Sarasota County was shocked by the deaths of several other teenagers, all linked to drug and alcohol abuse, Lisa Meshad said.

• • •

Last month, Sarasota County commissioners approved a pain clinic ordinance that attempts to address what they saw as shortcomings in the state law.

Most notably, it requires physicians in pain clinics to check the prescription drug database.

Under state law, it remains strictly voluntary for physicians to use it.

That effort, too, was well under way long before Brandi's death, but the Meshads have vowed to continue their advocacy.

"I feel there's so much more that can be done. There's so many holes in the state law, and as I've learned you've got to just chip away at it," Gavin Meshad told Sarasota commissioners at the public hearing. "What seems to be logical doesn't always happen in politics."

Meshad, vice president at his father's real estate company, recently was appointed by the governor to serve on the state board that regulates pharmacists.

"To get change you've got to have the right people pushing the cause," said Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight, recalling how Gavin Meshad came to his office even before his daughter's funeral. "When it affects a family who is that prominent, it becomes more of a recognized problem."

Knight said his counterparts in Hillsborough and Manatee counties are interested in Sarasota's ordinance.

And in Tallahassee, the attorney general still sees Brandi Meshad's face every day.

Bondi has removed the computer printout from her desk, replacing it with two framed pictures, a gift from the Meshad family, on her bookcase.

News researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8330. For more health news, visit www.tampabay.com/health.

In her own words

Brandi Meshad described her battle with prescription drugs in a journal:

"Addiction," she wrote, "it isn't any ordinary monster. It's like a giant octopus, weaving its tentacles not just around you but through you, squeezing not hard enough to kill you, but enough to keep you from feeling until you try to get away. Try, and you hunger for its grasping clutch, the way its tendrils pop you up, your need intensifying exponentially every minute you refuse to admit its being."

Sarasota family's tragedy becomes potent symbol in the war on prescription drug abuse 07/14/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 3:14pm]
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