Bearing the scars of 'devil's drug'
usatoday.com, March 3, 2014
The explosion happened in 2011, but Jessica Biggs still bleeds.
She bleeds when the sores on her leg pop open. She bleeds on the operating table during the skin grafts. And she still cries.
She was 22 that September night when the father of her children went into the bathroom of their Madison apartment to cook meth and something went wrong. He died two weeks later in the burn unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where she also was hospitalized.
Selena Humphrey was just 15 when she went to the Vanderbilt burn unit. She was cooking methamphetamine Dec. 4, 2000, in Grundy County when the chemical brew exploded in her face. She's done with the skin grafts, but her scars will never go away.
The explosions that forever changed the lives of these young women happened more than a decade apart — a timeline that demonstrates the longevity of Tennessee's meth problem. Surgeons at the state's burn units in Nashville and Memphis continue to rebuild the melted body parts of addicts. And even after having suffered horrible, disfiguring injuries, their patients still struggle with addiction.
Humphrey, who was spared a jail sentence because of her age, wound up serving time later, pleading guilty to possession of meth-related paraphernalia six years after the 2000 explosion. She said she's still using drugs but wants to stop.
Biggs wound up with another addiction after she stopped using meth. She got hooked on prescription pills after her surgeries, she said, "abusing them to numb my pain." She had to go to rehab to get off narcotics but said meth was the drug that dragged her down.
"Meth is not just a speed drug," Biggs said. "It's a devil's drug."
A revolving door
Burn units can be revolving doors for some addicts.
Dr. Bill Hickerson, the plastic surgeon who runs the unit at The MED in Memphis, said he has treated patients multiple times for repeat burns from meth lab explosions.
Just one bad burn case can carry a high price tag, especially when a patient develops an infection.
"It can go more than $1 million," Hickerson said. "It can be $1 million or $2 million with a large burn that gets sick."
He has worked at burn units in Memphis and Little Rock, Ark., before and since meth infested the South. The initial wave of burn victims were people who made the drugs in large quantities, mixing explosive chemicals while using propane heaters, before the smaller cold-cook "shake-and-bake" method became popular.
"Everything in that lab was obviously volatile," Hickerson said. "With a mistake, they got a huge explosion and very serious burns. The total body surface area burned would be very high."
The introduction of the shake-and-bake method accelerated the spread and use of the drug in Tennessee. In shake and bake, household chemicals are mixed in a soda bottle. No flame is needed.
"The shake and bake has made it more available for anybody," Hickerson said.
In a shake-and-bake explosion, the burned body area is generally smaller, but that does not mean people are not at risk for dying.
"They still get very sick because their immune systems have been totally destroyed by the drug," he said. "Their cardiovascular system is definitely not normal. With their pulmonary system, it is not unusual to see inflammatory condition of their lungs develop."
Dr. Blair Summitt, medical director of the burn unit at Vanderbilt, said he does not see as many obvious cases of meth explosion burns as he once did.
"Either we're not getting the full story — maybe we have some and we don't know it because the burns are smaller — but a lot of times the story can be sketchy," Summitt said.
Doctors and nurses know to look for telltale clues, such as a patient showing up at an emergency room two or three days after a burn has occurred or giving accounts of accidents that don't quite add up.
Hospital staff are mandated by Tennessee law to report suspicious cases to police.
Police knew immediately it was a meth explosion at Cedar Crest apartments in Madison on Sept. 17, 2011. It blew out a wall of the apartment that Biggs shared with Jason Scott, who already had a criminal record for making meth.
She cannot erase the memory of his screams for water and the strange whiteness of his face devoid of the top layer of skin the night of the explosion that led to his death. Shards of flesh hung from her hands and feet. Her ears looked like charcoal briquettes.
The couple had once been beautiful. Standing 6-foot-3 with high cheekbones and blond hair, Scott had the confident, closed-mouth smile of a man who thought he had the world by the tail. After years of performing pirouettes, leaps and stretches, Biggs had the body of a dancer and smooth, olive skin.
When they met, she was 19. He was five years older and had just gotten out of prison after serving time for burglary convictions, but he wasn't using drugs then.
His addiction problem began with pills and graduated to meth, Biggs said. She tried meth and liked it.
Scott was buying the drug directly from a meth cook who told him he needed help making meth.
"Jason, at first, said, 'I don't want to learn,'" she said. "But he got so bad on it that he eventually learned how to do it. That was his thing every day, all day. That was his life. He would get up, find a way to buy the stuff to cook it, cook it, do it and stay up all night. Of course, I tried it."
In a two-week timeframe, she said, her weight dropped from 140 pounds to 105 pounds.
"We were staying with his brother in Cheatham County," Biggs said.
"He had just got done cooking. We went to sleep. We woke up the next morning and the drug task force was knocking on the door. His brother called the cops on us.
"I did get my son taken from me," she said. "But the charges got dropped because Jason took my charges. We stopped after that."
She got her son back, and the couple had another baby boy. The children weren't home the night of the explosion. She said she was sleeping on the couch in a room next to the bathroom where the explosion occurred.
She insisted that it had been a year since he had cooked meth. She couldn't say why he chose to start again.
"I don't know why," she said. "He wanted some pills, and he couldn't find pills. He looked at me and said, 'I'm going to go cook.'"
She was hospitalized in the Vanderbilt burn unit for three months, then had to undergo a month of physical rehabilitation at another hospital. Besides those stays, she was hospitalized again last July because of a serious infection stemming from the injuries. She received treatment for addiction to painkillers in October 2012.
Her last skin graft surgery occurred Feb. 12.
"I have people who look at me every day," Biggs said. "I went to the zoo at Halloween. This one guy asked me if that was my Halloween costume. Every person just kind of stared at me like I had a disease or something. A lady at Wal-Mart didn't want to do my nails because of my skin."
She is on probation for criminal convictions associated with the explosion.
Her grandmother, Peggy Biggs, has custody of her sons. Jessica Biggs also lives with "Granny," the woman who raised her. She said her goals in life are to be a good mother to her sons and to become a licensed drug counselor.
Motherhood is a tough reality for Selena Humphrey.
Her mother introduced her to meth, she said. Her mother's boyfriend taught her to cook it. And Humphrey has lost her own rights to be a mother.
"My life is destroyed," she said. "It took my kids from me. It took my serenity, my pride, my self-esteem."
She has become the poster child for meth explosion burns — a role she is tired of playing after an appearance on "Oprah," a feature in Newsweek and having her picture pop up on multiple websites. Her recovery from the physical injuries nearly 14 years ago, as horrible as they were, has been more certain than her recovery from the disease of addiction.
"It took me two years before I could open a car door, almost three years before I could pick up a half gallon of milk," she said. "I had to learn to eat, talk, walk and sleep. For almost three years, I kept a garbage bag on my pillow because my face was bloody. I've had at least 100 multiple skin grafts."
She became a licensed nurse aide but lost her certification after a relapse and a 2006 arrest. Now out of prison, she cleans rooms in a Winchester motel that gives her a free place to stay. She is as brutally honest about herself as the reflection she sees scrubbing bathroom mirrors. She counts toking on a joint and drinking beer as using drugs, but said meth remains her drug of choice.
"My heart races, my mouth waters," she said, describing the craving.
She reads "Our Daily Bread," a devotional, every night. Humphrey prays for another chance and said she needs a residential option for treatment after a 30-day rehabilitation — a place for a fresh start.
"Something I can focus my life on instead of just sitting around twiddling my thumbs saying, 'Let's get high,'" she said. "What more have I got to do with my life? Nothing."