A Mother's Message
Kathleen Piller tells youths about the dangers of crank and how it claimed the life of her daughter
March 26, 2003 — When Kathleen Piller steps up to a podium, her message begins with a simple disclaimer.
“I’m not a speaker,” she says.
But to those willing to listen, Piller’s message is powerful. Her voice aches with the pain of a mother who outlived her child, and a grandmother whose twins barely got a chance to know their mom.
Now Piller, the nonspeaker, is speaking out. Her message to local youths in their tender teenage years: Methamphetamine kills.
“I used to be under the premise that only the drug user got hurt,” Piller says.
But when Piller’s daughter died of an illness linked to methamphetamine use, she left behind two 3-year-old daughters, a 13-year old son, a husband, an ex-husband, three stepdaughters, two brothers, two stepbrothers, three stepsisters, three grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, friends and a grieving mother.
“It’s just not the normal sequence for children to die before their parents,” Piller says.
The timeline of Piller’s Daughter’s life is etched into Piller’s mind with the same precision that a name is chiseled into a gravestone.
When her daughter, Shelly Morris, died on Feb. 11, 2002, at 10:04 a.m., she was exactly 39 years, 2 months and 2 hours old.
Earlier that morning, at 6:20 a.m., Shelly’s husband called her mother. “You better come quick,” he said.
Shelly had ripped off her oxygen and was flailing around. Years of drug abuse finally were going to force her to pay the ultimate price.
Exactly five months earlier, on Sept. 11, 2001, Piller and her daughter were confronted with two doses of bad news. Terrorists had attacked the United States and doctors at the University of Washington Medical Center said Shelly was too sick to merit a lung transplant.
Shelly already had been struggling with pulmonary hypertension for two years. The condition — which consists of high pressure in the lungs — is a severe consequence of methamphetamine abuse.
Doctors had tried several things to stave off the effects of the medical condition. They installed a catheter into her heart and later cut a hole through it in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure that fluids collecting in her body were placing on her vital organs.
Finally, in December 2001, doctors concluded Shelly was too sick to undergo any further surgeries. She would spend the next two months planning her own funeral and waiting to die.
“Even on her death bed, she probably would have taken it if it were given to her,” Piller says of methamphetamine. “She said it was straight from the devil.”
Methamphetamine — better known by its street name, “crank” — first arrived in Central Oregon in mass quantities in the mid-1990s.
It various forms, it can be smoked, snorted, injected by a needle or swallowed as a pill.
The drug is made easily in clandestine laboratories with relatively inexpensive over-the-counter ingredients — making its abuse widespread.
“I don’t think a lot of people I run into grasp how much of an epidemic this is,” says Sgt. Steve Webb, a Madras cop who’s put in time on the Central Oregon Drug Enforcement team, a multi-jurisdictional narcotics task force known as CODE. “Methamphetamine, in my opinion, is the drug of choice around here.”
The production and distribution of crank reached a fever pitch in 2001, when CODE officers busted 24 meth labs in Central Oregon, including eight in Jefferson County. Only seven labs were seized in the tri-county area last year, but methamphetamine peddlers have found more creative ways to operate their distribution networks.
“Central Oregon is just like the rest of the country. There are days we win and days we lose and days we break even,” says Lt. Bob Carpenter, CODE’s task force supervisor. “We think we’re making a difference, but the trend we’re now seeing is more and more methamphetamine is being brought to our area from Mexico and California.”
As long as there is a demand for crank, the epidemic will remain.
Users take the drug for the adrenaline-like rush, which is known to give them a sense of euphoria, increase their sexuality and alertness, and suppress appetites.
What users don’t want to face is the horrible long-term effects, such as possible brain damage, psychological problems, liver damage, fatal kidney and lung diseases, and countless other health problems.
“When people are on meth, they don’t care about anything else,” says Webb. “Their kids, their family — everything else takes a back seat.
“You’ll see someone that’s clean cut, and a few months down the road their faces are pock-marked and they’re losing weight.”
Shelly had only used methamphetamine for about three years, Piller says, but the health problems associated with the abuse proved fatal.
Shelly first began using drugs in high school when she experimented with marijuana. That inevitably let to more serious drugs such as cocaine and, finally, methamphetamine.
Her substance abuse ultimately ended her first marriage in 1997. Along the way, her car was repossessed and she spent her entire 401(k) on drugs. She got in trouble with the law.
“They had their house raided and were thrown to the ground with guns to their heads like you see in the movies,” Piller says.
In the last months of Shelly’s life, she and her mother grew especially close. Her friends had abandoned her, Piller says.
Shelly spoke of the mistakes she had made during her life, and shared dark poems she had written about her addiction.
Piller, of Prineville, with the backing of BestCare’s drug-prevention program under Mandi Puckett, now visits high schools and other Jefferson County youth organizations to shares those poems and other thoughts with vulnerable teens.
“She always said it would hook you fast and hard and you could never get away from the craving,” Piller recently told a group of Culver High School girls. “She told me cocaine was like baby candy compared to this crank.”
When Shelly and her friends were high on crank, they used to brag about the weight they’d lost. Sarcastically, they called it the Jenny Craig Diet.
But during Shelly’s last few months, her body inflated like a balloon. She carried 50 pounds of fluid on her stomach that sloshed around when her mother patted her on the side.
“You can’t imagine someone’s skin stretching out that much,” Piller says. “It was so fragile it could break easily.”
Shelly begged doctors to drain the water, but they told her she’d die of shock.
As the pain worsened, Shelly wore 100-milligram morphine patches that were supposed to last 72 hours. During her last week alive, she required six of those patches in a 24-hour period.
“It’s not a nice death,” Piller says. “It’s painful and it causes a lot of suffering.”
On the morning of Shelly’s death, Piller and Shelly’s husband took turns holding her as she slowly drifted into a sleep she’d never wake from.
Piller documented Shelly’s condition as it deteriorated, and now shares pictures of her sick daughter in hopes that it will deter youths from ever getting started on the so-called “devil’s drug.”
Speaking to at-risk youths is therapy for this grieving mother.
“To me, it makes me feel to a small extent that maybe she didn’t die for nothing.”