Legal drugs, deadly outcomes

November 11, 2012

Prescription overdoses kill more people than heroin and cocaine.

An L.A. Times review of coroners’ records finds that drugs prescribed by a small number of doctors caused or contributed to a disproportionate number of deaths.Terry Smith collapsed face-down in a pool of his own vomit. Lynn Blunt snored loudly as her lungs slowly filled with fluid. Summer Ann Burdette was midway through a pear when she stopped breathing. Larry Carmichael knocked over a lamp as he fell to the floor. Jennifer Thurber was curled up in bed, pale and still, when her father found her. Karl Finnila sat down on a curb to rest and never got up.

These six people died of drug overdoses within a span of 18 months. But according to coroners’ records, that was not all they had in common. Bottles of prescription medications found at the scene of each death bore the name of the same doctor: Van H. Vu.

After Finnila died, coroner’s investigators called Vu to learn about his patient’s medical history and why he had given him prescriptions for powerful medications, including the painkiller hydrocodone.

Investigators left half a dozen messages. Vu never called back, coroner’s records state.

Over the next four years, 10 more of his patients died of overdoses, the records show. In nine of those cases, painkillers Vu had prescribed for them were found at the scene.

Vu, a pain specialist in Huntington Beach, described himself as a conscientious, caring physician. He declined to comment on individual cases, citing confidentiality laws, but he said he treats many “very, very difficult patients” whose chronic pain is sometimes complicated by substance abuse and depression, anxiety or other mental illness.

“Every single day, I try to do the best I can for every single patient,” he said in an interview. “I can’t control what they do once they leave my office.”

Prescription drug overdoses now claim more lives than heroin and cocaine combined, fueling a doubling of drug-related deaths in the United States over the last decade.

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