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| Shapiro, Appleton & Washburn

Tests on the body revealed that she died because of a combination of Coricidin [MSD Consumer Care], an over-the-counter cold medication, and a prescription narcotic, fentanyl, that was not prescribed for her.

That dry, lifeless sentence in a March 29, 2012, Suffolk News-Herald article on the overdose death of a 17-year-old Portsmouth, Virginia (VA), high school athlete and volunteer wildlife rehabilitator jumped off my computer screen for exactly the sense of needless tragedy it didn't capture or convey. An apparent poor decision on the teenager's part cost her her life. And because that deadly choice was, police allege, facilitated by her then-19-year-old boyfriend who gave her the drugs, another life may be ruined by a powerful painkiller that should rarely be used outside hospitals — if at all.

The fentanyl overdose death of Briley Marie Compton on April 22, 2011, bears some similarities with another fatal incident involving recreational use of the opioid in Virginia Beach in 2010. In that case, two teenagers took Xanax (alprazolam-Pfizer), applied illegally obtained Duragesic (Ortho-McNeil) patches containing fentanyl, drank alcohol, went to sleep and never woke up. The person who supplied the fentanyl now sits in prison.

All painkillers and sleep medications carry risks of life-threatening side effects, ranging from liver and kidney damage to respiratory depression. Using fentanyl, though, puts all patients' lives in dangers every time. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has twice warned that fentanyl should only be prescribed to people whose cancer pain cannot be controlled by any other means and that that the prescription medication should only be used by patients who are being closely monitored by doctors, nurses and pharmacists.

Because those guidelines are not being followed — and likely never will be — my wrongful death and dangerous drug attorney colleagues and I have argued for years that fentanyl needs to be either taken off the market completely or prescribed only within hospitals. Overdoses of fentanyl and other powerful prescription painkillers account for the overwhelming majority of drug deaths in the United States. How many more people need to lose their lives before the dangerous products are more tightly controlled or eliminated altogether?


About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.

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