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Youth's overdose death sends strong message

Published April 28, 2011 1:00 pm

Prescription drugs • In Utah, overdoses dueto medications are leading cause of injury deaths.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It was close to noon on a lazy Sunday in December, when Angie Watson decided to rouse her sleeping son, Connor.

The amiable Cottonwood Heights teen had gone to the city's rec center to play basketball and ice skate the night before, then to a friend's house for dinner and asked if he could sleep over. But Watson wanted him to come home, and they watched the end of the movie "Date Night" before he headed off to his room.

When Watson walked in the next day, she found her 13-year-old dead in his bed.

The rest of that day was a painful blur, as Watson frantically called 911 and ushered a slew of strangers through her home to look for clues to why her son — who loved tinkering on cars with his dad, hiking with his mom and younger brother and playing almost any sport that involved a ball — was gone.

Connor had downed pilfered prescription drugs in a dose large enough to kill him, police discovered. In his room, they found an oxycodone pill bottle he had taken from the kitchen counter of a friend's house, where a grandmother's medications sat in the open. It had been emptied of her painkillers, and a sole oxycontin pill from a different prescription remained inside.

Prescription drug overdose deaths in Utah have increased more than tenfold since 1991 to become the state's leading cause of injury deaths — nationwide, they rank second, surpassed only by fatal auto crashes, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Utah's police and public-health officials are now urging residents to recognize the power of prescribed medications and to lock them away from relatives, guests, baby sitters and burglars. The medications should be taken only as prescribed, and when they are no longer needed, disposed of quickly at one of a growing number of secure sites.

Todd Grey, Utah's chief medical examiner, said he's seen the state's prescription drug overdose fatalities skyrocket since 2000, with 310 in 2009.

"People need to realize that these are, in and of themselves, dangerous compounds," Grey said, "and you have to treat them like that."

"I never perceived he'd end up dead" •In August, Connor celebrated his 13th birthday with a family barbecue that included close friends, and later, a trip to Lagoon amusement park in Farmington. In September, Watson discovered that her eighth-grade son — affectionately called "Dubya" by family and friends — had dabbled with drugs and alcohol. In checking her computer's Internet history, she also found he had ordered hallucinogenic herbs, using a Visa gift card he purchased with his allowance.

"At that point, I grounded him" and also confiscated his iPod and phone, Watson said. She searched for rehabilitation centers where he could volunteer and receive education, but she found nothing suitable for someone so young.

"Quite honestly, I thought that it was a phase he'd get over," Watson said. "I never perceived he'd end up dead."

Last October, Connor's father moved out, and the couple has since divorced.

Watson said she had frequently talked to Connor about not drinking alcohol, smoking or using illegal drugs. She discreetly checked her son's breath for whiffs of alcohol or smoke when he returned home from events.

However, she didn't emphasize the hazards of prescription drugs, not realizing how widespread abuse has become.

Now Watson wrestles with grief and self-examination that she tries to channel into action. She talks to her son's friends when they stop by. She blogs her insights at http://www.loveyadubya.com. She urges others to lock up their medications or dispose of them at sites that will incinerate them. She's joining Cottonwood Heights police officers who will collect unneeded medications at Saturday's second-annual National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.

She urges parents: "Don't stick your head in the sand. It could be your kid."

"Not a big safety window" • The level of oxycodone in Connor's 105-pound body was in the toxic to lethal range, but the number of pills he ingested is unknown, said Cottonwood Heights police Sgt. Corbett Ford.

"When you're looking at toxicity, it depends on so many different factors," Ford said, noting the police investigation indicated that the teen "had experimented with a lot of different things."

Late on the night before his Dec. 5 death, Connor had sent a text to a friend that he had a headache and was going to take a couple of pills.

The levels at which opioids become toxic aren't dramatically higher than their therapeutic thresholds, Grey added.

"There's not a big safety window," Grey said. "If you play with prescription drugs any way you want, you're getting yourself into trouble. But 400-plus folks each year don't seem to get that message."

A toddler under the age of 2 was the youngest victim of an opiate overdose that Grey recalls. The circumstances of the child's death were unclear, and no charges were filed.

"Either the pills were left out and the child took them," Grey said, "or the pills were used as a form of baby sitter. No one could prove one or the other."

Grey and Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby Russo also warn that addiction to opioid prescription drugs can lead to a switch to illegal drugs, often heroin.

Turning the tide • South Salt Lake mother Terry Ann Olsen stopped filling her son's prescriptions when he appeared to have recovered from an all-terrain-vehicle accident five years ago.

Later, she and her husband learned that their son had been buying painkillers on the street, then moved on to heroin since it was cheaper and easier to get. When one of his friends died of a drug overdose, Olsen became aware of her son's addiction and found treatment for him.

Seven more of his friends have since succumbed to drug overdoses. Olsen and her son, now 22, hope to help turn the tide. They are members of a neighborhood coalition to raise awareness about prescription and illicit drug abuse.

"People have to know that this is happening in our high schools to our really good kids," Olsen said.

It's important, she said, to give them "open channels to discuss the problems they're having. They're getting involved in things that are changing their lives forever." It was close to noon on a lazy Sunday in December when Angie Watson decided to rouse her sleeping teenage son.

The amiable Cottonwood Heights teen had gone to the city's rec center to play basketball and ice skate the night before, then to a friend's house for dinner, and asked if he could sleep over. But Watson wanted him to come home, and they watched the end of the movie "Date Night" before he headed off to his room.

When Watson walked in the next day, she found her 13-year-old dead in bed.

The rest of that day was a painful blur as Watson frantically called 9-1-1 and ushered a slew of strangers through her home to look for clues to why her son — who loved tinkering on cars with his dad, hiking with his mom and younger brother, and playing almost any sport that involved a ball — was gone.

Connor had downed pilfered prescription drugs in a dose large enough to kill him, police discovered. In his room, they found an oxycodone pill bottle he had taken from the kitchen counter of a friend's house, where a grandmother's medications sat out in the open. It had been emptied of her painkillers, and a sole oxycontin pill from a different prescription remained inside.

Prescription drug overdose deaths in Utah have increased more than ten-fold since 1991 to become the state's leading cause of injury deaths — nationwide, they rank second, surpassed only fatal auto crashes, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Utah's police and public health officials are now urging residents to recognize the power of prescribed medications and to lock them away from relatives, guests, babysitters and burglars. The medications should be taken only as prescribed and when no longer needed, disposed of quickly at one of a growing number of secure sites.

Todd Grey, Utah's chief medical examiner, said he's seen the state's Rx-drug overdose fatalities skyrocket since 2000, with 310 in 2009 involving only prescription drugs.

"People need to realize that these are in and of themselves dangerous compounds," Grey said, "and you have to treat them like that."

A parent's worst nightmare. In August, Connor celebrated his 13th birthday with a family barbecue that included close friends, and a later trip to Lagoon. In September, Watson discovered that her eighth-grade son — affectionately called "Dubya" by family and friends — had dabbled with drugs and alcohol. In checking her computer's Internet history, she also found he had ordered hallucinogenic herbs online, using a Visa gift card he purchased with his allowance.

"At that point, I grounded him," also confiscating his iPod and cell phone, Watson said. She searched for rehabilitation centers where he could possibly volunteer and get some education — but found nothing suitable for someone so young.

"Quite honestly, I thought that it was a phase he'd get over," Watson said. "I never perceived he'd end up dead."

Last October, Connor's father moved out and the couple has since divorced.

Watson said she had frequently talked to Connor about not drinking alcohol, smoking or using illegal drugs. She discreetly checked her son's breath for whiffs of alcohol or smoke when he returned home from events. She said no to certain sleep-overs.

However, she didn't emphasize the hazards of prescription drugs, not realizing how widespread abuse has become.

Now Watson wrestles with grief and self-examination that she tries to channel into action. She talks to her son's friends when they stop by. She blogs her insights at http://www.loveyadubya.com. She urges others to lock up their medications or dispose of them at sites that will incinerate them. She's joining Cottonwood Heights police officers who will collect unneeded medications at Saturday's 2nd annual National Prescription Drug Take Back Day.

She urges parents: "Don't stick your head in the sand. It could be your kid."

How much did he take? The level of oxycodone in Connor's 105-pound body was in the toxic to lethal range, but the number of pills he ingested is unknown, said Cottonwood Heights Police Sgt. Corbett Ford.

"When you're looking at toxicity, it depends on so many different factors," Ford said, noting the police investigation indicated that the teen "had experimented with a lot of different things."

Late on the night before his Dec. 5 death, Connor had texted a friend that he had a headache and was going to take a couple of pills.

The levels at which opiods become toxic are not dramatically higher than their therapeutic thresholds, Grey added.

"There's not a big safety window," Grey said. "If you play with prescription drugs any way you want, you're getting yourself into trouble. But 400-plus folks each year don't seem to get that message."

A toddler under the age of two was the youngest victim of an opiate overdose that Grey recalls. The circumstances of the child's death were unclear, and no charges were filed.

"Either the pills were left out and the child took them," Grey said, "or the pills were used as a form of babysitter. No one could prove one or the other."

Grey and Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby also warn that addiction to opoid prescription drugs can lead to a deadly switch to illegal drugs, often heroin.

A fatal tide. South Salt Lake mother Terry Ann Olsen stopped filling her son's prescriptions when he appeared to have recovered from an all-terrain vehicle accident five years ago.

Later, she and her husband learned their son had been buying painkillers on the street, then moved on to heroin since it was cheaper and easier to get. When one of his friends died of a drug overdose, Olsen became aware of her son's addiction and found treatment for him.

Seven more of his friends have since succumbed to drug overdoses. Olsen and her son, now 22, hope to help turn the tide. They are members of a neighborhood coalition to raise awareness about prescription and illicit drug abuse.

"People have to know that this is happening in our high schools to our really good kids," Olsen said. It's important, she said, to give them "open channels to discuss the problems they're having. They're getting involved in things that are changing their lives forever."

cmckitrick@sltrib.com

Prescription drug drop-off locations

Here are the drop-off locations for leftover prescription drugs around Utah. The locations with a red bubble are permanent locations open year-round. The locations with a blue bubble are temporary locations accepting drugs only during the National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on April 30, 2011.


View http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?hl=en&ie=UTF8&msa=0&msid=207717687373424030153.0004a1e9bf0123ab1b2bc&ll=40.136891,-111.719971&spn=1.469834,2.334595&z=8&source=embed" style="color:#0000FF;text-align:left">Prescription drug drop-off sites in a larger map

Toss your drugs

Saturday is National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, created to help safely dispose of unneeded medications. Cottonwood Heights police will be collecting at the Smith's Food & Drug Center in Cottonwood Heights, 3470 Bengal Blvd. Find other temporary and permanent collection sites using our interactive map at http://www.sltrib.com, or visit tinyurl.com/tossthedrugs. —

By the numbers:

• Utah had 432 unintentional drug overdose deaths, involving prescription and illegal drugs, between Oct. 26, 2008 and Oct. 25, 2009.

• 64 percent of those deaths — 278 total — involved at least one opiod.

• Of the 278 opioid-related deaths, 240 included no illicit drugs. Of those 240 victims, 51 percent were female, and 78 percent were ages 25 to 54.

Source: Utah Department of Health Overprescribed?

An analysis by the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed that 56 percent of patients who received an opiod prescription in 2009 filled another opiod prescription within 30 days.

• Nearly 12 percent were prescribed to patients ages 10 to 29.

• Dentists were the primary source for youth ages 10 to 19.

• Nearly 46 percent were for ages 40 to 59 — prescribed by their primary care providers.

• From 1991 to 2009, opiod prescriptions increased three-fold to over 200 million nationally.

Source: http://www.nida.nih.gov.