(CNN) – Pete Jackson attended his brother-in-law’s funeral along with his daughter, Emily, six years ago. He never dreamed it would be the last day of his daughter’s life.
“It’s so tragic, just not something you would never, ever expect,” said Pete Jackson.
Instead of going home to the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights after the funeral, Emily Jackson, 18, spent the night with her cousins.
That night, she made a deadly decision. She took an Oxycontin — a single prescription pill — that her cousin offered to her while drinking. She went to sleep that night and never woke up. She died of respiratory depression — she simply stopped breathing.
The Oxycontin that Emily took belonged to her uncle, who had died of cancer.
While taking one pill and dying is rare, dying accidentally after using painkillers inappropriately is common.
One person dies from a drug overdose every 19 minutes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 37,000 Americans died after accidentally overdosing on legal or illegal drugs in 2009, according to the CDC; about half of those deaths involved prescription painkillers.
Those numbers are significant enough to make prescription drugs the leading cause of accidental death in this county. It’s a statistic that has led some experts to call prescription drug abuse an epidemic.
“If you asked any guy on the street what the leading cause of accidental death is, they would guess gunshot or car accident,” said Tom McLellan, co-founder of the Treatment Research Institute, a nonprofit organization advocating for improvements in substance abuse policies. “They would never imagine it’s pharmaceutical opioids (painkillers).”
John Castellani — the president and CEO of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents and lobbies on behalf of drug manufacturers — said America’s problem with prescription drugs is unacceptable. But he insisted the drugs are safe when used as recommended.
“The problem we’re dealing with with prescription drug abuse is having to balance those patients (who abuse prescription drugs) and those millions of patients that benefit from these medicines because they have a need that they and their physicians have recognized,” Castellani said.
Emily Jackson was on the road to recovery after a 2002 diagnosis of thyroid cancer and undergoing three surgeries to fight it.
She and her cousin had done “a bit of drinking” the night she died, Pete Jackson said. But he is sure that had she not taken the Oxycontin, she would still be alive today.
“I’ve never tried to make it sound like Emily is innocent,” Jackson said. “What I want people to understand about Emily’s tragedy is how easily this can happen, how dangerous these drugs are.”
The prescription painkiller Emily Jackson took is a respiratory depressant that slows breathing. That in combination with the alcohol, another respiratory depressant, overwhelmed her brain, which stopped giving her heart and lungs the signal to keep functioning.
“In many ways, you play Russian roulette,” said Kathleen Meyers, a senior researcher for the Treatment Research Institute, who added that adolescents and young adults are particularly at risk because they feel invincible. “You have no idea the (respiratory) consequences of any one group of substances, and then you put all that together and the risks go up exponentially.”