Thursday, February 07, 2008
Sad lessons from Heath Ledger's Death
By Miriam Falco
Managing Editor Medical News
Ever since we learned of Heath Ledger's sudden death on January 22, the question of what killed him loomed large (at least in the news media). Just a couple of days after, New York's Police Commissioner Ray Kelly announced that no illegal drugs had been found in Ledger's apartment, but two unnamed law enforcement officials told the Associated Press that six types of prescription drugs were found.
Yesterday the New York City medical examiner released the final autopsy report. Cause of death: a combination of six prescription drugs. Ledger "died as the result of acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam, and doxylamine."
A spokesperson for the medical examiner tells us that none of these drugs - two sleep medications, two anti-anxiety drugs and two narcotic painkillers - was taken in excess. Still, the ME ruled this accidental death resulted "from the abuse of prescription medications." And sadly, Ledger is only the latest celebrity to die after mixing prescription meds. Tomorrow is the first anniversary of Anna Nicole Smith's death.
But experts from addiction specialists to pathologists point out that prescription abuse is hardly limited to celebrities. In fact, within an hour of the report's release, two acquaintances told me they had some or all of those drugs in their medicine cabinets, left over from previous prescriptions.
Many people may not realize that mixed together, sleep aids, anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants and narcotic painkillers can be lethal. In Ledger's case, we're told the combination of drugs probably caused his central nervous system to slow down so much that his heart stopped beating and lungs stopped breathing and he never woke up. It's hard to imagine that any doctor would prescribe all six of these drugs to the same patient, but nowadays it's not difficult to obtain prescriptions from several different doctors. Unless you tell your doctor what other drugs you're taking, it's difficult for him or her to anticipate potential complications.
Some use prescription drugs to get high because they are so widely available, and much easier to get than illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin. And many parents may not know that among teens, prescription drug abuse ranks ahead of all illegal drugs except for marijuana according to a report by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released two days after Ledger's death. The agency noted that, "Teens are abusing prescription drugs because many believe the myth that these drugs provide a 'safe' high." That may be a common misconception among the young and the old. Even though a drug may be prescribed by a physician, taking it in the wrong way or in excess can be deadly.
Concern for prescription drug abuse has led the drug control policy agency to participate in a $30 million ad campaign to raise awareness about the problem. The launch was delayed in light of Ledger's death (the White House didn't want to appear to "opportunistic," according to spokeswoman Dana Perino), but if you watched the Super Bowl, you may have seen the commercial showing a drug dealer complaining that he can't compete with kids getting their drugs for free out of their parents' medicine cabinets.
Many, including Ledger's parents, hope that lessons will be learned from this tragedy. In a statement, the family said, "Heath's accidental death serves as a caution to the hidden dangers of combining prescription medication, even at low dosage."
Were you surprised that too many prescription drugs led to Health Ledger's death? Were you aware of the risks of combining multiple prescription drugs?
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