Maybe it's because she was mere months older than me. Perhaps it's because she suffered from the same chronic health condition or simply because she died on my birthday. Regardless, I am compelled to write a tribute I hope might save others from a similar fate.
Brittany Murphy, 31, of Los Angeles, California, died Dec. 20, 2009. She was laid to rest surrounded by devoted friends and family on Christmas Eve.
You may have heard of her. An under-appreciated bleached-blonde actress who still managed to shine in every film she graced, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Her obituary should not end there.
While final autopsy results are still a few weeks away, here is what I know now. Like me, she was a diabetic. Also like me, she had access to a multitude of prescription drugs from a series of doctors whom we can only assume--at least at this point--had her best of intentions at heart. Found unresponsive on her bathroom floor by her mother, she succumbed unexpectedly to a heart attack.
Speculation quickly arose about possible culprits, including theories of an untreated eating disorder. It could have also been the freak result of common, typically non-fatal, heart defect.
Time will tell the full story, a version that cannot responsibly ignore that at Murphy's bedside was a vast array of pharmaceutical drugs that when taken together, could have spelled the demise for someone twice her slender frame.
Investigators found the following the following prescriptions within Murphy's bedside reach: anti-seizure and anti-migraine Topamax; anti-inflammatory Methylprednisolone; anti-depressant Fluoxetine; anti-anxiety meds Klonopin and Ativan; antibiotic Biaxin; Carbamazepine--a drug used to treat Diabetes as well as bipolar symptoms; and the highly addictive pain relievers Vicoprofen and Hydrocodone.
Most tragically ironic, Propranolol, a drug designed to prevent hypertension and heart attacks, was also found at the scene. Investigator notes conclude with the following: "No alcohol containers, paraphernalia or illegal drugs were discovered."
While I hesitate to fuel the media's eagerness to draw conclusions, I can responsibly say this. These drugs are representative of the pharmecuetical cocktails found on nightstands and in medicine far from Murphy's Hollywood home.
After hearing of her death, I found myself uncharacteristically bothered over someone I'd never met. On its face, it seemed too cruel and too tragic. Then out of the blue, I heard from a colleague who happened to be one of Murphy's Los Angeles friends, a woman devastated by her loss but still committed to finding meaning in a tragedy that most of us would just consider another tale of a glamorous celebrity never knowing the luxury of old age.
In my home state of Colorado, like so many distanced from the fallible fantasy that is Hollywood, it's easy to dismiss the personalities that grace our lives in two hour increments of buttered-popcorn escape. But it is from lives like Murphy's we gain the opportunity to face reality head on. She could have been your wife, your daughter, or your best friend.
It could have been me.
In addition to Diabetes, I also suffer from a rare and progressive vascular condition that at times has proven incredibly painful. I've had vicodin refilled 60 at a time and have spent too many nights in emergency rooms on morphine drips.
Fortunately healthy today, my medicine cabinet is free of the addiction and agony of prescription drugs. But others are not so lucky. In Colorado, as is the case in more than a dozen states across the country, prescription overdoses are the leading cause of accidental deaths. Sad but true: pills found in our homes are more likely to kill us than car accidents, including those caused by drunk drivers.
And yet we say nothing. Perhaps we are too consumed with the national debate over medical marijuana--a topic that steals headlines on a daily basis. Fighting the scourge of marijuana gets district attorneys elected. But in fact, marijuana is a much weaker threat to our health and the health of our families. It has never been independently attributed to a single fatal overdose in this entire nation's history. Not a single death.
So where do we go from here? We can choose to continue a failed federal war against marijuana, both in its recreational and medicinal use, that leads to the citation or incarceration of nearly a million Americans every year. Additionally, we can continue to funnel our sick and dying into a conventional treatment model of prescription narcotic therapies that often leaves them incoherent and unable to enjoy life at all. I've been there.
Or we can finally, and rationally, acknowledge that prescription drugs are a much greater public health and fiscal threat than marijuana will ever be.
Critics allege that marijuana as a medical treatment is simply a placebo. Let's assume for a moment they're right. So what. Skeptics should talk to the doctors--many of whom are former skeptics themselves--now recommending medical marijuana to their patients. My good friend and fellow Republican confided in me earlier this year that he turned to recommending medical marijuana only after tragically seeing patients, including two thirty-something females, succumb to prescription drug addictions fed by doctor shopping and well-intentioned friends.
Then there are medical marijuana patients who never intended to assume such a label. Another friend, an evangelical conservative Christian, sought out marijuana as an alternative health care treatment for her husband only she saw him suffer the ravages of a prescription narcotic addiction resulting from horrific, chronic, injury-induced pain.
In 2010s America, the hysteria surrounding marijuana can be perhaps surpassed only by the hysteria surrounding a Hollywood starlet lost too soon.
As I reflect on it all, I find myself--a rather brash blonde in my early thirties--wondering if maybe, just maybe, we could have saved a friend I never knew from her own demise. At minimum, let's let her death serve as a warning to others about prescription drugs that, when abused and at minimum, have silenced the lives of far too many, far too young. Marijuana, even on its most damning day, could never have achieved such destruction.
Jessica Corry is a Denver attorney whose clients include medical marijuana patients and caregivers.
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