Friday, February 15, 2008

What About Heath?

What Happened to Heath Ledger Can't Happen To You

When the news broke about the tragic death of actor Heath Ledger, many people were shocked and saddened. But now that the news is breaking about exactly what caused Ledger’s death, many people are likely to be wondering if they could share a similar fate. And that’s making me angry.

The initial autopsy on Ledger was “inconclusive,” but now the New York City medical examiner’s office has released toxicology reports revealing that Ledger died of “acute intoxication” from a combination of prescription medicines – two kinds of sleep aids, two anti-anxiety drugs, and two different painkillers. The official cause of Ledger’s death is now listed as “accidental overdose.”

It’s sad, of course. But I’m enraged that many of the so-called “experts” who are quoted in the news stories are turning Ledger’s overdose into an object lesson on the dangers of mixing prescription medications. And how they’ve reached this conclusion is a little beyond me.

If you’re one of the many people who routinely take a combination prescription drugs under the supervision of your doctor, DON’T PANIC. While a degree of common sense is certainly required when taking multiple prescriptions, I’m here to tell you that it’s not likely that Ledger died because he mixed up his pills. But that’s exactly the spin that’s being put on this story.

A pharmacologist professor from Duke University commented on the overdose by saying, “This is not rock star wretched excess. This is a situation that could happen to plenty of people with prescriptions for these kinds of drugs.”

A medical toxicologist from the NYU School of Medicine said, “If you see one doctor for one thing and you see another doctor for another thing, neither the physician nor the patient may realize they’re getting two similar medications.” And then she followed up with this amazing statement: “Patients should be aware that this happens on a regular basis and it doesn’t just happen to celebrities.”

Stop it! Yes, Ledger’s death is tragic. Yes, he was only 28. Yes, it’s sad that he leaves behind a two-year-old daughter. I’ll even agree that he was a talented actor. But it seems that the Hollywood spin machine has gotten their hands on this story and twisted it into a case of a patient being killed because he confused his medications. And that’s not only a laughable conclusion, but also an incredibly irresponsible one for ANY doctor to imply. Heath Ledger, like many other substance abusers, imbibed a frightening combination of powerful narcotics in an attempt to get high, and it killed him. Plain and simple.

Let’s all just take a moment and review the facts here. First of all, let’s take a look at the medications in Ledger’s system: The narcotic/painkiller Oxycodone (better known as Perodan and OxyContin); the narcotic/painkiller Hydrocodone (also known as Vicodin); the anti-anxiety drug Diazepam (you know it as Valium); and the anti-anxiety drug Alprazolam (that’s Xanax). I’ll spare you the medical names for the prescription sleeping pills he took – Unisom and Restoril.

What did that professor from Duke say? That this “wasn’t rock star wretched excess?” She’s got to be kidding. All you need to do is glance at the entertainment section of any newspaper and you’ll see stories about celebrities battling with addictions to JUST ONE of the drugs that were found in Ledger’s system. But Ledger seems to have popped down a greatest hits line-up of all the most popularly abused prescription drugs.

And yet Newsweek has actually run a story with a headline that reads “A Tragic Lesson: Could Heath Ledger’s overdose have been prevented?” You don’t even have to read the article; I’ll tell you the answer right now: yes. If Ledger wasn’t abusing prescription drugs, he wouldn’t have overdosed and died. Period. And you only need to see one TV commercial for a prescription sleeping pill to realize that they must be taken with great caution. And yet Ledger took TWO KINDS of prescription sleeping pills (and who knows how many of each), and then washed them down with FOUR OTHER KINDS OF NARCOTIC.

Still, the Newsweek article focuses on consumers’ “lack of awareness” about the risks of certain drugs, and mentions that Ledger had told the press that he’d “had difficulty sleeping” last fall. So that somehow excuses taking six narcotics in one sitting? Whatever happened to a warm glass of milk?

There’s an ambiguity to the term “accidental overdose.” It implies a mistake. But the media is using it in a way where that implication puts Ledger in the same category as, say, a grandmother who dies because she somehow misunderstood the directions on her prescription bottle. It’s ridiculous. How many heroin addicts do you think overdose on purpose?

I’m not quite sure why it is that no one seems willing to call a spade a spade in the case of Ledger’s death. And it sickens me that there are people in the medical community so willing to jump on board of the party line and act as though what happened to Ledger could just as easily happen to anyone. It couldn’t. I can’t speculate on whether or not Ledger was trying to commit suicide. A head of forensic Science at John Jay College commented that “this was not a deliberate attempt to kill himself.” Maybe not. But it was definitely a deliberate attempt to get high. What’s even more amazing is that these doctors are pointing to the dangers of multiple prescriptions in spite of the reports that Ledger had been struggling with substance abuse for years.

Are Americans overmedicated? Definitely. Are there potential dangers to taking multiple prescription drugs? Of course. But if you’re patient on two or three prescription medications, should you fear that you’re about to become the next Heath Ledger? Unless you routinely abuse those medications, the answer is a resounding no.

Guest Post written by:
William Campbell Douglass II, M.D.