What to Know
Lisa Thomas-Laury was a beloved Philadelphia anchorwoman for nearly 40 years.
She was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder called POEMS syndrome.
Doctors prescribed her OxyContin to manage the pain, but she became addicted to her medication.
Legendary Philadelphia anchorwoman Lisa Thomas-Laury appeared to have a charmed life.
In 1978, she beat Oprah Winfrey for a coveted position at WPVI where she anchored the 5 p.m. broadcast for decades. She married a handsome doctor and raised two sons in their Haverford home.
Behind the camera, Thomas-Laury was privately battling demons on two fronts.
She suffered from a rare condition called POEMS syndrome that paralyzed her vocal cords, bound her to a wheelchair and required two bone marrow transplants. Then, she became addicted to the opioids prescribed to treat her chronic pain.
"I was at the peak of my career," she told NBC10's Erin Coleman. "This thing came out of nowhere."
In 2001 while out for a walk, Thomas-Laury's ankles suddenly felt weak and pins and needles shot up through her legs. A doctor at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynewood diagnosed Thomas-Laury with POEMS, a blood disorder that causes numbing and tingling in legs, enlarged spleen or liver, abnormal hormone levels and skin discoloration.
Before Thomas-Laury could begin treatment, her doctor relocated and referred her to other specialists at Lankenau. Those doctors disagreed with the initial diagnosis and sent her down a medical path that ultimately proved fruitless.
Her health continued to deteriorate for more than two years until her organs began to shut down and her vocal cords were paralyzed. She used a wheelchair because the pressure of standing and walking was too great for her ankles. When she did walk, the once athletic Thomas-Laury lumbered in leg braces.
"I would always be the one to have the answers and not to have them, I became extremely depressed," she said. "I won’t say that I gave up hope, but I was very … worried."
Her doctors prescribed OxyContin for her pain. First, it was 10 milligrams twice per day. Soon, that wasn’t enough to manage the pain. She began to slice her pills in half and sneak more throughout the day just to feel normal.
"That’s what happens when you develop this dependency," she said. "When you start trying to manage your own medication, it’s not good. I learned that after the fact."
On several occasions, Thomas-Laury found herself away from home and from her OxyContin. If she missed a dosage, she became anxious, panicky and irritable. One day when she and her husband drove their son to D.C., Thomas-Laury left her medication at home. The drive became unbearable as withdrawal set in.
"I counted to 100 forwards and backwards. I recited nursery rhymes. I tried to sing with the songs on the radio," she said. "[My husband] would reach out to hold my hand. I would grab it and hold tight, digging my fingernails in, and then I would abruptly shove his hand away."
By the time she got home, Thomas-Laury knew she wasn’t herself.
"I was not in pain," she said. "I took it because my body was telling me I needed it to calm down."
Thomas-Laury knew what addiction looked like. Friends of her sons and children of her friends had died from overdoses. This was almost a full decade before the opioid epidemic became a public health concern, but still the newswoman would not sit idle. She enrolled in a drug treatment program and began to conquer one of her demons.
While in recovery, Thomas-Laury met a 16-year-old girl from Wisconsin. She had been a star soccer player who broke an ankle and became addicted to Percocet. And then there was man from Iowa whose wife had given him an ultimatum: rehab or divorce.
“I realized I’m here with people who have much worse problems that I do, who are going to stay here longer," she said. "It was a real-eye opener for me, but never did I question why I was there. I was where I needed to be."
Thomas-Laury is sharing her story now in hopes of helping others learn the signs of addiction before it's too late.
"We have to keep our eyes and ears open," she said. "Talk to our children, talk to our sons and daughters, about what’s going on in their lives and encourage them to get help."