Health Battle Can’t Slow Down Desire to Make an Impact
Posted on: May 12, 2020
Even as health care professionals are focused intently on the current COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis in the U.S. continues to take its own toll across America. In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency.
That same year, Colin Hungerpiller began his studies toward earning his doctorate in pharmacy at the University of South Carolina College of Pharmacy. Hungerpiller had just completed his bachelor’s degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences. In fact, he was continuing a storied legacy of family members to graduate from the university. His father, Colin Hungerpiller, graduated in 1975 with degrees in biology and mathematics; his grandfather, Kent Hungerpiller Sr., attended the university prior to the start of World War II; and his great-grandfather, John C. Hungerpiller, graduated from what was then called South Carolina College in 1906 with a degree in English - some of his works are housed at the South Caroliniana Library.
Also worth noting, the Deward and Sloan Hungerpiller Brittain Gallery located at the Hollings Special Collections Library in the Thomas Cooper Library is named after his great aunt and uncle. Another great aunt, Gladys Hungerpiller Ingram, established the Hungerpiller Endowed Professorship in the College of Education in honor of his great-grandfather.
Because the opioid epidemic is such a hot topic, I wanted to break it down further to see what is happening not only in our state, but also within our university ...
Colin Hungerpillar, Pharm.D. Candidate
As he settled into his pharmacy studies, Hungerpiller was quickly drawn to the discussions on the significance of the opioid epidemic, so he decided to focus on how he might be able to make an impact. “Because the opioid epidemic is such a hot topic, I wanted to break it down further to see what is happening not only in our state, but also within our university,” Hungerpiller says.
What he discovered during his research is mind-boggling in terms of the impact of the epidemic, as HHS reported in 2018 that 47,600 people in the U.S. died from opioid overdoses. The picture is not a pretty one in South Carolina either. Hungerpiller cites data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control that demonstrates the numbers of those abusing opioids in the state has only continued to rise between 2014 and 2018, the latest year that data is available.
The issue is also greatly affecting the UofSC community. “According to the National College Health Assessment, since 2018, UofSC’s student population fell slightly above the national average of opioid and antidepressant abuse,” he states.
Hungerpiller’s own health issues have influenced his interest in the opioid epidemic. In 2018, he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, immune thrombocytopenia purpura (ITP). “It causes my immune system to attack my body's platelets, which affects my blood's ability to clot. This condition results in low platelet counts. When I was first diagnosed, my platelets were so low, my oncologist feared I was at risk for a fatal event within 48 hours,” he recalls.
To fight the disorder, Hungerpiller endured high-dose and long-term steroid use, antibody infusions and chemotherapy. The treatment for the disorder resulted in Hungerpiller developing a condition called avascular necrosis (AVN), a degenerative condition of major joints. “The bones in my shoulders and hips started to die,” he says.
Hungerpiller underwent hip surgery on both of his hips and received a partial shoulder replacement in November 2019. “I had to take opioid pain killers to alleviate the pain,” he says, “and I can understand why they are so addictive.”
While he did not develop a dependency on the pain killers, Hungerpiller empathizes with patients who need to take opioids, especially those dealing with hematologic and cancer issues. For that reason, he is considering pursuing a residency in hematology / oncology after graduation.
In February 2020, Hungerpiller took his opioid abuse research to legislators on Capitol Hill as a member of the UofSC Student Government Congressional Advisory Board. Hungerpiller presented his findings to the South Carolina Congressional Delegation and advocated for support of legislation currently being considered in Congress, HR1614 and S724 also known as the John S. McCain Opioid Addiction Prevention Act and HR226, HR2483 and S1044, known as the Fentanyl Sanctions Act.
“We had the chance to meet with and present our research to the chiefs of staff and the chief legislative aides for the congressmen,” says Hungerpiller. “We also met with Deputy Secretary of Education Mick Zais, who is the former state superintendent of education in S.C. They all had a keen interest in the information about opioid abuse in our state.”
Hungerpiller takes his role as a leader seriously, having served in several capacities in student government including as a senator for prepharmacy and pharmacy students, president pro tempore of the Senate, chief of staff to the student body treasurer and chief advisor to the student body president. Hungerpiller is also a past president of Omicron Delta Kappa, the oldest leadership society at the university. As such, Hungerpiller had the pleasure of informing UofSC President Bob Caslen of his honorary induction into the society.
“I was able to form a good relationship with President Caslen,” he says, “and I had the opportunity to work on two projects with him, a proposed leadership seminar and a mentoring program that would encourage middle school students to pursue a college education.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in postponement of the projects, Hungerpiller is hopeful the programs will continue with renewed effort once there is return to ‘normalcy,’ as the university has announced plans for students to return to campus in August.
Hungerpiller moves into his fourth year of pharmacy school still focused on educating others about opioid abuse. “DHEC reports there are five million pain killer prescriptions filled every year in S.C.,” he says. “One in four patients develops an addiction. When you hear the numbers, it puts it into perspective how truly pervasive this problem has become.”