The main characters in Dopesick include Beth Macy, Ed Bisch, and Tess Henry.
- Beth Macy, the author of Dopesick, is a journalist who investigates the rise of the opioid crisis and its impact on the area around her hometown of Roanoke, Virginia.
- Ed Bisch is a founding member of the activist group Relatives Against Purdue Pharma and the creator of OxyKills.com, which he launched after losing his son to an overdose.
- Tess Henry is a young woman from Hidden Valley, Virginia, who becomes addicted to heroin. She struggles to achieve sobriety and is ultimately murdered.
Last Updated on August 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3047
Beth Macy is a journalist and bestselling nonfiction author. In her award-winning book Dopesick, she investigates the roots and impact of the American opioid epidemic. Macy focuses in particular on the rise of the addictive opioid prescription painkiller OxyContin in Virginia, including in her own town of Roanoke. Through extensive research and interviews with those directly affected—including young recovering addicts and grieving parents turned activists—she explores the crisis’s origins and its devastating effects on individuals and communities. Macy also charts the case brought against the manufacturers of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, by US attorneys and grassroots advocacy groups.
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Kristi is Jesse Bolstridge’s mother, and Macy interviews her extensively. After losing her son to an overdose, Kristi becomes “obsessed with the story of his swift descent into addiction.” She urges Macy to interview incarcerated drug trafficker Ronnie Jones, whom she believes provided the heroin that killed her son. She hopes the interview will yield insight into Jesse’s addiction and decline. Ultimately, however, Kristi receives few illuminating details from Macy’s interview with Jones. He doesn’t even remember her son’s name.
Jesse is Kristi’s son, who dies of a heroin overdose at age nineteen. He lives in the manicured suburbs of Roanoke, Virginia, and attends good schools before spiraling from a “high school football hunk and burly construction worker to a heroin-overdose statistic.”
Dennis is Jesse Bolstridge’s best friend. A Shenandoah County native, Dennis regularly commutes to Baltimore to buy heroin. Authorities initially suspect Dennis of supplying the heroin that kills Jesse.
Ginger is Spencer Mumpower’s mother. She is a high-profile civic leader and jeweler in the Roanoke suburbs. Her son’s widely publicized incarceration brings public awareness to burgeoning heroin abuse in the area. Desperate community members with addicted friends and relatives often come to Ginger’s jewelry store, seeking not jewelry but advice.
Spencer is Ginger Mumpower’s son. He is sentenced to seven years in federal prison for his role in the death of Scott Roth, his former private school classmate in Hidden Valley, Virginia. A low-level “middleman” dealer and user, Spencer provides Scott with the heroin on which Scott overdoses. Spencer ultimately achieves sobriety by replacing his heroin and amphetamine habits with dedication to martial arts training.
Perez is a karate instructor and a father figure to Spencer Mumpower. During Spencer’s incarceration, Perez is jailed “for taking indecent liberties with a teenage female student.” Spencer maintains his sobriety, however, despite the upsetting loss of his mentor.
Scott is Spencer Mumpower’s “drug buddy.” The two were acquaintances in high school, although they were never particularly close. As a young adult, Scott goes to Spencer’s apartment, where Spencer “play[s] go-between,” handing Scott the heroin that causes his death.
Robin is Scott Roth’s mother. Scott was her only child. After his death, she becomes obsessed with sunflowers, which her son loved.
Tess is Patricia Mehrmann’s daughter. She is a former top student and athlete in the affluent suburb of Hidden Valley, Virginia. After becoming addicted to heroin, she turns to prostitution and drug dealing. Her story is marked by periods of absence that weigh on both Tess’s mother and Macy. While suffering through heroin withdrawal in jail, Tess discovers she is pregnant. Soon after she gives birth, she loses custody of her son. She manages to achieve sobriety intermittently after jail, during which time she stays in touch with Macy. Their closeness causes Macy to question her own journalistic boundaries. Tess ends up in Las Vegas, in and out of communication with her mother and Macy. On Christmas Eve 2017, a homeless man finds Tess’s naked body in a plastic bag at the bottom of a dumpster.
Patricia is Tess’s mother. She is a nurse and the wife of a surgeon in Hidden Valley. Patricia’s interviews with the author are extensive, raw, and personal. Macy thanks Patricia personally at the end of the book:
In my thirty-two years of journalism, I have never known a source to be as open and unvarnished about hard truths as Patricia Mehrmann, who let me into her life.
Patricia’s daughter Tess struggles mightily with addiction and recovery. Patricia becomes a drug abuse prevention and treatment advocate and tries desperately to find her daughter in Las Vegas, where Tess is homeless. Before Patricia can find her, however, Tess is brutally murdered.
Lieutenant Richard Stallard
Lieutenant Stallard is a detective in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. He discovers that a powerful new opioid, OxyContin, is being abused on the streets just a month or so after local pharmacies start carrying it. Stallard investigates and turns over information to prosecutors about doctors who overprescribe painkillers.
Dr. Steve Huff
Dr. Huff is a Virginia-based physician who is disturbed by the aggressive marketing of drugs to physicians. As a result, he decides to stop taking gifts from pharmaceutical sales representatives. Upon moving his practice to Laurel Fork, Virginia, Dr. Huff discovers that much of the population has been prescribed dangerous combinations of narcotics at alarmingly high dosages. The high street value of the pills wreaks havoc on the town until Dr. Huff “slams the breaks on the Laurel Fork narcotics train” by limiting prescriptions.
Dr. Sue Cantrell
Dr. Cantrell is a former pharmacist who sets up a community clinic in the parking lot of a Virginia factory to care for those who work there. She becomes the top health official in the region. Dr. Cantrell warns state supervisors about the opioid epidemic decades before it garners national attention. Her concerns are dismissed as a “regional issue.”
Dr. Art Van Zee
Dr. Van Zee is a dedicated physician from Nevada who moves to Virginia to care for the underserved. He meets and marries a local woman while serving the community in Lee County, the westernmost county of Virginia. Dr. Van Zee is an early whistle-blower about the overprescription of OxyContin and will “spend the remainder of his career dealing with its aftermath.” Many of his patients are also his dear friends from the coal mining community, or his friends’ children.
Sue Ella Kobak
Sue Ella is Dr. Van Zee’s wife. She is a local attorney, an activist, and a coal miner’s daughter with a big personality and deep ties to the community.
Sister Beth Davies
Sister Beth is a plucky, fearless, diminutive nun from Staten Island. She earns a master’s degree from Columbia University and a reputation for toughness. After relocating to Virginia, she fiercely defends miners’ rights and interests. Sister Beth works closely with Sue Ella and Dr. Van Zee to care for the addicted. She vehemently opposes taking “blood money” from Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the makers of OxyContin.
Bisch is an IT worker living in Philadelphia. In 2001, his eighteen-year-old son dies of an OxyContin overdose. Ed is unaware that the drug even exists until it kills his son. Bisch creates the message board OxyKills.com, which becomes “a clearinghouse for the latest Oxy-related overdose numbers reported by local medical examiners and the DEA.” The website also becomes a place for grieving families to connect. Bisch collaborates with another grieving parent to launch an advocacy group called Relatives Against Purdue Pharma (RAPP).
Barbara Van Rooyan
Van Rooyan is a researcher, professor, and college counselor whose son dies of an overdose from a single OxyContin pill. She joins forces with Dr. Van Zee, Sister Beth, and bereaved parent advocates to push the FDA to enforce greater drug regulation. Building on Dr. Van Zee’s initial efforts, Van Rooyan successfully submits the first FDA petition to recall OxyContin.
John L. Brownlee
Brownlee is a brash, ambitious US attorney in Abingdon, Virginia, who tenaciously goes after Purdue Pharmaceuticals. Purdue underestimates Brownlee and his team. His aggressive efforts are largely seen as “a vehicle for being in the national news,” meant to bolster his run for Virginia attorney general. While his motives may be “self-serving,” they also address a national addiction issue that no one else takes on at the time. With the assistance of attorneys Gregg Wood, Randy Ramseyer, and Rick Mountcastle, Brownlee eventually successfully reaches a landmark plea agreement with Purdue Pharmaceuticals for fraudulently misbranding OxyContin.
Randy Ramseyer is an assistant US attorney whom Brownlee appoints to help him prosecute Purdue Pharma. He is described as humble and suspicious of the press. Prior to his appointment, he successfully prosecutes “a host of pill-mill doctors” in collaboration with Rick Mountcastle.
Rick Mountcastle is an assistant US attorney and career government lawyer. He works close to the coalfields in an Abingdon satellite office with Randy Ramseyer. Mountcastle and Ramseyer receive appointments from John L. Brownlee to help prosecute Purdue Pharma.
Howard R. Udell
Udell is one of three Purdue Pharma executives who plead guilty to liability misdemeanors in Brownlee’s case against the company. He is a former federal prosecutor. All three executives are publicly sentenced in Virginia, where they are forced to listen to extensive testimony from families adversely affected by OxyContin.
Dr. Paul D. Goldheim
Dr. Goldheim is Purdue Pharma’s former chief scientist and medical director. He is one of the Purdue Pharma executives who agrees to Brownlee’s misdemeanor plea deal. During his sentencing, his lawyer endeavors to highlight Dr. Goldheim’s efforts to limit OxyContin abuse.
Friedman is one of three Purdue Pharma executives who plead guilty to liability misdemeanors. Though the public hearings during sentencing in Virginia are emotional for all three executives, Friedman’s seems particularly brutal. A bereaved mother notes that in speaking engagements, Friedman often mentions that one of his relatives survived the Holocaust. The mother then compares Friedman to Hitler.
Wood is a health fraud investigator for the US Attorney’s Office in Roanoke. He collects and carefully reviews copious lawsuits, records, and news pieces, compiling evidence of Purdue Pharma's wrongdoing. Wood receives a substantial amount of valuable information from working with advocates such as Dr. Van Zee and Sister Beth. He believes Purdue has “knowingly concealed the drug’s addictiveness.”
Yeary is an Abingdon attorney who learns of the dangers of OxyContin at a lecture given by Dr. Van Zee. He attends the lecture “to satisfy a school teacher he [is] dating at the time.” The lecture inspires him to sue Purdue Pharma on behalf of Fayne McCauley, one of Dr. Van Zee’s patients being treated for addiction. Yeary loses his case against Purdue.
McCauley is one of Dr. Van Zee’s elderly patients. He is a devout Catholic and is well-known in his community of Jonesville. Retired from a physically punishing coal mining career, McCauley is injured and becomes addicted to pain medication. He claims his addiction is a product of unethical overprescription practices that Purdue Pharma promotes. A federal judge dismisses his case. McCauley dies four years later at the age of seventy-five, officially of a heart attack. His daughter believes McCauley was murdered.
Dr. Richard C. Norton
Dr. Norton is a physician who allegedly overprescribes painkillers to McCauley, contributing to McCauley’s addiction. It comes to light that what appears to be overprescribing is Dr. Norton “simply following his Purdue rep’s guidelines to a T.” The investigation sheds light on the dangerous prescription protocols espoused by Purdue Pharma. Dr. Norton is sentenced to five years in federal prison on unrelated corruption charges.
Police Chief Chris Perkins
Perkins is a Roanoke police chief. While working undercover, he goes by the name “Woody Call” and is forced to address the scourge of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. When finds a local celebrity weatherman overdosing, the incident brings local heroin abuse into the public eye. Chief Perkins becomes a proponent of community policing and alternatives to jail time for nonviolent offenders. He founds the Hope Initiative, a program dedicated to helping those struggling with addiction.
Janine is Bobby Baylis’s mother. Her son's death motivates her to be the first Hope Initiative volunteer, or “angel,” under Chief Perkins. Janine eventually becomes the Hope Initiative’s executive director at the Bradley Free Clinic, which promotes treatment rather than prosecution and offers free services to the working poor. Janine is conservative and does not fully support medication-assisted treatment. She rapidly becomes overwhelmed by the scope and devastation of the opioid epidemic.
John Robert “Bobby” Baylis
Bobby is Janine’s son, who dies of an overdose from fentanyl-laced heroin. His death motivates his mother to work in addiction treatment.
Jamie is Christopher Waldrop’s mother. She is a leader in her community and the wife of a prominent surgeon. Two of her children become addicted to pills and, later, heroin. Motivated by her son’s addiction, Jamie becomes a recovery coach, the second Hope Initiative volunteer under Police Chief Perkins. She works with Tess Henry when Tess is deep into addiction relapse after losing custody of her son.
Christopher is Jamie Waldrop’s son. He is a heroin addict who is in rehab when his friend Colton Banks dies of a heroin overdose. Ultimately, Christopher gets sober and helps others achieve sobriety as well.
Colton is Drenna Banks’s son. He sells pills on the Radford University campus and dies of an oxycodone overdose at age nineteen. His body is found at the home of a middle-aged man who had been supplying Colton and Christopher with prescription pain pills.
Drenna is Colton Banks’s mother and becomes a Hope Initiative volunteer, at which time she bonds with Jamie Waldrop. Drenna runs a successful insurance agency with her husband. They have two children who are addicted to heroin, one of whom dies from an overdose.
Sergeant Brent Lutz
Lutz is a Shenandoah County sergeant investigating suspected drug dealers. He obsessively tracks a Woodstock, Virginia, heroin ring that operates out of a poultry plant.
Ronnie “D.C.” Jones
Jones is a major drug trafficker whom Lutz is trying to track down for flooding Woodstock, Virginia, with heroin from Harlem. Jones brings heroin to the area in bulk for six months before he is apprehended and arrested in 2013. Jones is two years into serving a twenty-three-year prison sentence for armed heroin distribution when the author interviews him at Kristi Fernandez’s behest. Jones agrees to be interviewed because he wants his elementary school–age daughters to know “there’s a different side” to him. Ultimately, the six-hour interview reveals that Jones seems to care very little for his victims and does not grasp the seriousness of his crimes.
Thomas is Ronnie Jones’s younger brother. He says that their family had no idea Ronnie was dealing drugs.
Pettyjohn works as a primary subdealer for Ronnie Jones. After beng kicked out of the Marine Corps for alcohol-related charges, he descends into heroin addiction and distribution. He is arrested and subsequently provides a confession that helps law enforcement arrest Ronnie Jones.
Metcalf is an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who teams up with Sergeant Lutz. Undercover, he investigates drug dealer Devon Gray. Metcalf is frequently described as “relentless” and “a real pain in the ass.” His father is a heroin-addicted drug dealer.
Gray is a key drug distributor for Ronnie Jones and Kareem “New York” Shaw.
Kareem “New York” Shaw
New York is an associate of Ronnie Jones. Lutz spends considerable resources identifying and locating him. After his arrest, he leads law enforcement to Mack.
Matthew “Mack” Santiago
Mack is a Harlem heroin supplier for Ronnie Jones. Law enforcement eventually tracks him down after much effort. Mack accepts a plea deal for ten years in federal prison.
Eric H. Holder Jr.
Holder serves as attorney general under Barack Obama. He is conservative about prosecution and imprisonment except in the most severe cases. He considers Devon Gray to be one of these cases and is motivated to prosecute him.
Wolthuis is an assistant US attorney who becomes a top heroin prosecutor in the western part of Virginia, prosecuting both Ronnie Jones and Mack Santiago.
Ashlyn Keikilani Kessler
One of “Roanoke’s first long-haul drug runners,” Kessler brings drugs into Virginia in bulk from New Jersey. She is a mother, a paralegal, and a graduate of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University with a degree in criminal justice. Kessler serves a federal prison sentence of seven and a half years for distribution.
Bassford is the assistant US attorney who prosecutes Spencer Mumpower’s and Ashlyn Kessler’s cases. He simultaneously serves in the US Army Reserve as a brigadier general.
Engles is a former professional baseball player who becomes the third Hope Initiative volunteer under Chief Perkins after suffering an overdose while riding the Staten Island Ferry. Engles becomes a treatment consultant for the American Addiction Centers.
Jordan “Joey” Gilbert
Joey is a friend of Tess Henry’s and also uses drugs. She experiences success with medication-assisted treatment until her insurance runs out, when she returns to street drugs before seeking help from the Hope Initiative. Joey ultimately dies of an illicit methadone overdose.
Hartman is a Roanoke psychologist and Hope Initiative volunteer. She works with Jamie Waldrop to get Jordan “Joey” Gilbert into residential treatment. Her husband, a psychiatrist, has treated Joey for addiction in the past.
Judge Michael Moore
Judge Moore is a Russell County, Virginia, drug court judge who advocates for treatment, care, and close monitoring of addicts in lieu of prosecution. He volunteers at twelve-step meetings and leverages community contacts to find jobs for drug court participants. Moore praises prosecutors’ eventual decision to allow drug courts to utilize medication-assisted treatment.
Teresa Gardner Tyson
Tyson is a nurse practitioner who provides care for Virginia’s uninsured in her grant-funded mobile Health Wagon. Nurse Tyson grieves for her patients, who are sick and dying as Virginia fails to expand Medicaid and the opioid epidemic devastates coal mining families.
Dr. Steve Loyd
Dr. Loyd is a physician in recovery from his own addiction for over a decade. Dr. Loyd becomes Tennessee’s assistant commissioner for Substance Abuse Services. He is a strong proponent of medically assisted treatment and advocates for it despite powerful resistance from his community.
Pack is an East Tennessee State University public health professor. He collaborates with Dr. Steve Loyd in Gray, Tennessee, to create one of the strongest, most dynamic treatment models. Pack and Dr. Loyd open Overmountain Recovery together.
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