A Healthy and Necessary Discussion: Tom Petty Died of an Accidental Drug Overdose

A Healthy and Necessary Discussion: Tom Petty Died of an Accidental Drug Overdose

It was with great sadness that we lost Tom Petty last October and the latest report from the coroner demonstrates that there needs to be continued research into pain management that is not also potentially life-threatening.

Ever since Tom Petty suddenly passed away last October, fans of the iconic rock star have been waiting for the official announcement of how and why it happened.

Last week, the "how" was revealed when a Los Angeles County Medical Examiner ruled that the Hall of Fame musician died from "multisystem organ failure due to resuscitated cardiopulmonary arrest due to mixed drug toxicity."

In simpler language, the lead singer of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fell victim to a deadly combination of four opioids, two sedatives and an antidepressant. Several of these are capable of depressing the central nervous system on their own - the classic "drug overdose." But in an extraordinary combination like this, it seems it would be difficult to avoid such an outcome.

The list of drugs found in Petty's system included two prescription opioid painkillers, oxycodone and fentanyl, two illegal fentanyl analogs, acetylfentanyl and despropionyl fentanyl, two benzodiazepine sedatives, alprazolam (generic Xanax) and temazepam (generic Restoril), and the antidepressant citalopram (generic Celexa).

The coroner's report pointed out that Petty was already suffering from coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis) as well as emphysema. These are both conditions that can worsen one's chances of suffering an overdose, and also of surviving one.

Medical, not recreational

In a statement on the late singer's website, the Petty family has revealed the "why" for the tragedy, and it wasn't recreational drug use.

It should be pointed out that Petty's band had been touring for 6 months, probably the biggest, most punishing tour ever. The 50-plus cities in 6 months tour was likely more than just exhausting for the 66-year-old bandleader. Off stage, without the heady joy of performing, it was quite likely a private nightmare of pain. In fact, Petty had a genuine medical need for medication, and most of it was apparently legitimate prescriptions to address that pain.

"Our family sat together this morning with the Medical Examiner - Coroner's office and we were informed of their final analysis that Tom Petty passed away due to an accidental drug overdose as a result of taking a variety of medications," says the website statement by Dana Petty and Adria Petty.

"Unfortunately Tom's body suffered from many serious ailments including emphysema, knee problems and most significantly a fractured hip. Despite this painful injury he insisted on keeping his commitment to his fans and he toured for 53 dates with a fractured hip and, as he did, it worsened to a more serious injury. On the day he died he was informed his hip had graduated to a full on break and it is our feeling that the pain was simply unbearable and was the cause for his over use of medication.

"We knew before the report was shared with us that he was prescribed various pain medications for a multitude of issues including Fentanyl patches and we feel confident that this was, as the coroner found, an unfortunate accident."

Hope for others

"As a family, we recognize this report may spark a further discussion on the opioid crisis and we feel that it is a healthy and necessary discussion and we hope in some way this report can save lives. Many people who overdose begin with a legitimate injury or simply do not understand the potency and deadly nature of these medications.

"On a positive note we now know for certain he went painlessly and beautifully exhausted after doing what he loved the most, for one last time, performing live with his unmatchable rock band for his loyal fans on the biggest tour of his 40 plus year career. He was extremely proud of that achievement in the days before he passed.

"We continue to mourn with you and marvel at Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers incredible positive impact on music and the world. And we thank you all for your love and support over the last months. Thank you also for respecting the memory of a man who was truly great during his time on this planet both publicly and privately. We would be grateful if you could respect the privacy of the entire Heartbreaker family during this difficult time," the statement concludes.

Too many deaths from prescription drugs

Back in the 1990s, Tom Petty was seriously involved with drugs, including heroin. The singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, and actor successfully put addiction and dependence behind him, and went on building an outstandingly successful career.

Just two years ago, he told all in his authorized biography, "Petty: The Biography" by Warren Zanes. He wanted young people coming up to avoid the pitfall of substance abuse.

That Tom Petty succumbed to drugs, and accidentally, after recapturing his life and creativity from hard drugs decades ago, is even more tragic.

Here at Novus, we deal every day with the dangers of overusing opioids, benzodiazepines and other dangerous prescription drugs. It's heartening that across America, research is progressing into less harmful but effective painkillers, the medical profession is taking a long hard look at prescribing habits, and even government at all levels is on board with new programs.

There is hope for the future.

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