Updated: October 15, 2013 4:00PM
One of the first Chicago-area victims of a flesh-eating drug said the symptoms began like a cigarette burn.
“It starts purple and then goes into a blister after five or six days,” Amber Neitzel told WLS-TV.
Amber Neitzel and her sister, Angie, confirmed they are two of the five people treated at St. Joseph Medical Center in Will County after using “Crocodile,” which doctors say rots the skin from the inside out.
All five patients who were reportedly stricken after injecting a flesh-eating heroin knockoff known as Crocodile — also known as “Krokodil,” have been released from Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center, said Dr. Abhin Singla, director of addiction services at the hospital, said Monday. Three women and two men who thought they were injecting heroin into their bodies sought treatment for their wounds last week, he said.
Singla declined to disclose any personal information about his patients, including their identities.
The sisters, however, told WLS that they are heroin addicts and thought they were buying heroin. They said they didn’t know they got crocodile instead.
Crocodile started being manufactured about a decade ago in Russia, where heroin is harder to find. Codeine tablets are mixed with gasoline, paint thinner, butane and other chemicals to create an injectable drug.
Their mother, Kimberly Neitzel, herself a recovering addict, first pointed out the effects of the drug on her daughters.
The women said they were coming forward to warn others of the drug’s effects. They said in the interview that they’ve been told that if they continue using drugs, they’ll likely be dead in one to three years.
Amber Neitzel told patch.com that she believes she unknowingly had been doing the drug for more than a year.
“It’s like 80 times stronger than heroin, like it’s that much stronger,” she told the website.
Singla said he reported the unusual cases to the Drug Enforcement Agency a week ago after seeing the first three patients who sought treatment at the emergency room. He didn’t get a return call from the DEA until last Wednesday, so in the interim Singla and the hospital decided to issue a press release warning area drug users of the potential for harm from Crocodile.
The synthetic opiate rots the skin from the inside out, Singla said. Gangrene develops and gives the dead skin a scaly green appearance, which provided the name of the drug.
Although there is no way to test to see if Crocodile was the culprit in all five cases admitted to the hospital, “All of the patients told me that’s what they had been given,” Singla said.
All five thought they were buying heroin, but were told later they had been sold crocodile, he explained.
“Can you know for sure? The only way to know for sure is to test the substance they injected,” he said. “And no one brought in anything for us to test. And I wouldn’t expect them to.”
However, after working in addiction services for 16 years, Singla said he could see that these cases were different because of the green scaly skin. Attending physicians in the ER contacted Singla after the patients said they had been duped with Crocodile, he said.
Normally, Singla does not report drug cases that wind up in the hospital to the DEA or other law enforcement officials.
“If I had to report things to the DEA, who would ever come to get treatment if they thought they were going to get in trouble?”
In fact, two of the patients signed themselves out of the hospital against medical advice for just such concerns, he added.
“I don’t have a legal obligation, but I thought it was a public health issue,” he said. “That’s why I went to the DEA as well as the police department last week to see what they had been seeing.
“No one called back for several days so we went and issued a press release just so that the people who are out there using are aware of what was going on so they could at least be a little vigilant about what they were doing.”
On Monday, hospital spokeswoman Jan Ciccarelli said to her knowledge no new Crocodile cases were reported over the weekend.
Contributing: Cindy Wojdyla Cain