Longform

Generation Rx

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She was still asleep on the couch early that evening when Christopher and several other guys dropped in. Luke had returned with lots of weed and three fat gel caps of morphine, a drug he didn't much like because it gives a "dirty" high, making him feel rotten after it wears off. But morphine was the best his dealer could offer. He later told Shelley it took his last $30. No matter; he'd recoup it quickly by selling the pot.

Wearing a black tank top and deep into the game City of Heroes, Luke looked gaunt and hollow-eyed. "He had been on Xanax the entire week," Christopher says. "He had gone from swallowing it to dissolving it in water or snorting it. It hits your bloodstream all at once." Christopher bought some weed but declined Luke's offer to share the morphine.

At 10 p.m., Shelley woke from her nap. Luke emptied one gel cap of the morphine and separated it into two lines. He snorted one, and Shelley snorted the other. It hit Shelley hard, and she stumbled to bed.

Shelley roused around 9 a.m. on May 14 and found Luke half on, half off the bed. She pushed him back onto it and draped his arm around her. It fell limp. Alarmed, Shelley pressed her ear on his chest. His heart was beating, faint and slow but not irregular. She went back to sleep.

Later that morning--she doesn't remember the time, but it was probably close to noon--Shelley got out of bed and started to tidy up. They were going to UPS that day to look for work. A few minutes later, when she tried to rouse Luke, he didn't respond. Shelley pulled the covers off the bed, joking around. She saw with a shock that the top of his body was deathly pale and the bottom half looked bruised. Shelley flashed back to discovering her mother's body; her blood had settled on the side where she'd fallen, making her appear bruised. Shrieking, Shelley ran through the apartment and found the three gel caps on the counter, empty.

Hysterical, Shelley called Jason's cell phone. When he didn't answer, she dialed his roommate Christopher and screamed at him to wake Jason. "He's not breathing!" she sobbed to Jason. "Get over here now. Luke's dead!"

Jason raced to the apartment. One look was all it took. Weeping, incoherent, Shelley insisted they had to get all the pot and paraphernalia out of the apartment. She didn't want his parents or the police to know Luke was dealing drugs.

"Luke's dead," Jason told her. "He's not going to jail." He realized, however, that Shelley's probation could be revoked for being around illegal drugs. Jason gathered up the dope, bongs and scales--inadvertently leaving behind a tube containing mushroom spores from an unsuccessful attempt to grow 'shrooms--and carted the stuff out.

Shelley called 911 about 12:30 p.m. Two Dallas police detectives arrived in minutes with the paramedics.

The news of Luke's death flashed through cell phones, leaving his friends shocked and bewildered. With their limited knowledge of pharmaceuticals, they debated the cause. Did the Adderall, an amphetamine that can cause heart irregularities, interact with the morphine, which can suppress respiration? Finally aware how little they really knew, the tragedy snapped them out of their own pill habits.

For a while.

As they awaited the autopsy results, Luke's parents lived in a kind of suspended disbelief that lasted seven weeks. "I couldn't fathom that it was a drug overdose," Sondra says. "Luke was so smart." She was convinced there had been foul play.

Sondra agonized that Luke might have survived if Shelley had immediately called 911. Shelley's grief and drug use had resulted in different stories. There's no doubt, however, that when Shelley woke up the second time, Luke was beyond rescue.

The autopsy results surprised everybody.

Dr. William Rohr, the Collin County medical examiner, ruled that Luke died of mixed-drug intoxication--the combined effects of morphine, amphetamine and at least three benzodiazepines. While the morphine alone wasn't a lethal dose, the chemical cocktail in Luke's body shut down his respiration.

Rhor noted that Luke had an undiagnosed disorder called Hashimotos thyroiditis, which affects hormone production. The disease was significant, he said, but he couldnt quantify how much it had to do with his death. According to Dr. James Griffin, an endocrinologist at UT Southwestern Medical School, it probably played little role. But it illustrates how people who seem healthy and robust, oblivious to underlying health problems, can be playing Russian roulette with their lives by taking powerful medications.

Lukes blood also showed traces of diazepam (Valium), temazepam (a sleep aid) and oxazepam (anti-anxiety). Had he taken the benzos that day? The night before? Perhaps Luke had gotten to the point where he couldn't remember what he took when, and even his carefully organized drug log couldn't save him.

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Glenna Whitley

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