Margin of Error

by Ned Wicker
(Wisconsin)

We don’t always think of prescription medications as being potentially fatal, and we certainly don’t believe that any extreme side effects are going to happen to us. I suppose that’s a human defense mechanism. It won’t happen to us. But it does. A young man was found dead of an apparent overdose, but what seems apparent is not necessary what really happened.

Life was good for Jack

Jake was a well-adjusted, professionally successful man in his mid 20’s, with no worries, no problems and no medical issues until he broke his shoulder. He had served with distinction in the U.S. Air Force, earning a spot on an elite unit. His father could not have been prouder and his mother always talked about her remarkable son. He had two younger daughters who looked up to him. But one night it all came crashing down.

We know that Jake was not an addict. We also know that he did not abuse the prescription pain medication he was given, because given the time table of the events, the amount of medication still left in the bottle, in his system showed he was under using the medication.

Because of his military background, being a part of an elite fighting unit, he was no stranger to handling pain and for him to take any medication at all was out of the ordinary. Some people who are athletically fit may sometimes pop some Advil, but not Jake.

The shoulder injury really set him back, however, and following the surgery he gave in and decided that a little help wasn’t a bad thing, but only to take the edge off the pain and not eliminate it entirely. If anything, he reluctantly took the medicine. So what went wrong?

A sad ending

As strange as it sounds, Jake had no tolerance for the opiate drug he was taking. It wasn’t an overdose, it was a severe reaction. He took his medicine before bed, so he could get comfortable. In his sleep, he aspirated and choked to death. He was at his parents’ house, dog sitting, so there was no one around to render assistance.

By the time mom and dad got home from their vacation, he had already been dead for three days. He was in bed, television on with a novel at his bedside. It was a surreal scene, as who could believe that such a strong, vibrant young man could suffer such a fate? It was a tragic sequence of events.


Medical professionals go to great lengths to assess the potential for addiction before prescribing opiates. The dosage is strict, the time table is limited and all caution is taken to ensure that the medication does what it is intended to do, without fear of abuse or a negative reaction.

The medical examiner had to be called into this case, because there is always the possibility of suicide and any time there is an unexpected, or suspicious death there needs to be a full inquiry. Again, no overdose and no suicide.

Very hard to understand

Mom and dad were in shock and the idea of their son succumbing in such a way was so fantastic, so utterly out of the question, they just could not understand the medical explanation. Sure, if their son had been taking too much of the drug, or using it for recreation, they could understand that something bad could happen, but that wasn’t the case. Military heroes are not supposed to die like this.

We read the directions. We listen to the doctor and pharmacist. We gloss over the fine details, because we don’t think we will have any difficulties handling the drug. But it can happen. It did happen.

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