COLUMN: A gifted actor’s final role

He caught Hollywood’s eye with The Patriot, was heralded for his hunkiness in A Knight’s Tale, and reaped lasting recognition for his portrayal of a painfully repressed gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, but it may be Heath Ledger’s final role – a young man found dead in his apartment – that leaves the most lasting impression.

At least, this would honour his memory. At most, it might save somebody’s life.

On Wednesday, the U.S. coroner’s service announced the cause of the 28-year-old’s untimely demise: accidental overdose of prescription medications.

The substances found in Ledger’s system are a litany of Big Pharma’s heavy hitters: oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine – six prescription drugs, including those marketed as Xanax and Valium.

Ledger, who had complained about insomnia, anxiety and racing thoughts, was obviously seeking medical help for his problems. The profession let him down.

No competent doctor prescribes half-a-dozen potent drugs at a time to one patient. If more than one physician is to blame, then a pharmacy system which allows the dispensing of multiple medicines to the same person – particularly when most of the above-mentioned drugs have specific warnings about mixing them with other narcotics – needs an overhaul.

Ledger’s prescriptions were nothing to dabble with. They are strong, habit-forming, potentially fatal narcotics.

Outraged naiveté aside, I’m aware of the Elvis Factor. Celebrities have always had access to all the mind- and mood-altering substances they desired – be they legal, illicit or against manufacturer’s suggested use.

But this issue clearly crosses class lines.

Witness the flurry of “ask your doctor if [insert pharmaceutical name here] is right for you” advertisements.

Western medicine has traditionally been based on curing illness (primarily through drugs and surgery) as opposed to promoting wellness. But the multi-billion-dollar prescription drug industry only serves to accelerate and ingrain the process.

More and more, psychological and biological processes that are entirely normal are being demonized by legal drug pushers.

Menstruation, that annoying monthly event (not to mention inherently healthy bodily function) can now be eliminated with new birth control pills. No fuss, no muss... and no long-term study on health effects.

The introvert’s personality trait of shyness is now “social anxiety disorder.”

The natural lull of libido before menopause: “female sexual dysfunction.”

Temporary sleeplessness due to extra stress: “insomnia.”

Sadness following a divorce or death: “depression.”

All can be banished with a pill – or two, or three.

What if instead of painkillers, people tried therapeutic massage first. What if our health care system promoted the slowing down of life, for adequate sleep, exercise and play, instead of numbing us with drugs so we can continue along at the hectic pace.

If prescription medicines are needed, they should be administered carefully, monitored vigilantly and used sparingly.

Of course then, nobody would make huge profits.

“While no medications were taken in excess, we learned today the combination of doctor-prescribed drugs proved lethal for our boy,” Ledger’s father Kim said Wednesday. “Heath’s accidental death serves as a caution to the hidden dangers of combining prescription medication, even at low dosage.”

The Ledger family has paid a huge price for a warning we should all heed.


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