March 28 began as a typical, low-key evening for 15-year-old Kapa‘a High School sophomore Colin Mathews.
A Friday night, he was at home. He had sparred a bit with his 12-year-old brother over a pillow, grabbed some crackers and headed for bed.
But Mathews never woke up.
The rest of what happened is still being pieced together by police.
What is certain is that before he died, Mathews took an unconfirmed amount of OxyContin, a powerful prescription painkiller manufactured by Purdue Pharma which has netted more than $1 billion in sales since 1998.
Parents, friends and family are still reeling over Mathews’ untimely death, which police say was likely an accidental overdose.
The toxicology report stating the official cause of death was still pending late last week, according to Kaua‘i Police Department Assistant Chief Roy Asher. Police are also investigating where Mathews got the drug, as it wasn’t prescribed to him.
Just weeks earlier, Conrad Mathews and his wife, Linda, were talking with their son about colleges, including possible out-of-state choices in Oregon and Alaska.
Now they are mourning his loss.
“He was a good kid,” his father said. “A regular, good kid. We’re blown away. It’s been so devastating for all of us. It’s just a tragedy. It’s senseless.” Like many parents who have to face the death of a child, the Mathews are in shock.
This shouldn’t have happened to their son, they said.
His parents say he wasn’t a partyer. He wasn’t out running wild. He had been part of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program. In fact, he had even hounded his father for years about quitting smoking cigarettes.
But one “tragic mistake,” as his mother put it, ended his life.
And as the parents try to make sense of what happened, amidst anecdotes of their son’s affinity for his new Xbox, knife collection and their dog, “Lucky,” what seems to add to their bewilderment is the sense that they were out of the loop.
“All these kids seemed to know all about this stuff,” Linda Mathews said. “I guess the market is flooded with it.”
Communication on Mathews’ MySpace page shows exchanges in which peers allude to using OxyContin, which they refer to as “oc’s” and “oxy.” Mathews’ father, who had to retrieve information from his son’s MySpace page days after he died, said he was shocked to see some of its content, including instructions sent to his son about how to make Egyptian methamphetamine.
Conrad Mathews said he was somewhat grateful to read his son’s response, which was that he wasn’t at all interested in something as destructive as meth.
Linda Mathews said her son hadn’t been on MySpace that much, but monitoring his use of it “certainly couldn’t have hurt.” She also said that had she realized what was out there, she would have been monitoring his phone.
“Kids text message so much,” she said. “With my 12-year-old, I’ll be monitoring his text messages. If I had been aware, that could have helped me. I just didn’t have a clue.” But, Linda Mathews added, the family felt they did have an open line of communication with their son.
“We are an open family and we did communicate every night,” she said. “I thought my teenage son needed privacy and I was willing to give him that. I didn’t realize it was too much privacy. We were close and it never felt like we were out of touch with each other. But something like this happens and you realize how out of touch you were.”
Gary Shimabukuro, who teaches drug awareness throughout the state, said prescription narcotics are a popular drug choice for students in rural areas.
Shimabukuro said many seeking a high from prescription narcotics will alter the recommended method of ingestion of swallowing it whole. Instead, he said, they’ll crush it to get high.
“A lot of times they’re crushing it or mixing it with liquid to inject it — that’s pretty much a slam dunk for it to be fatal because you’re releasing all the medicine at once,” he said.
According to the Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration, OxyContin’s time-release formula is only in tact when in tablet form. Abusers crush it to create a more intense, morphine-like high.
Shimabukuro added, however, that even if children and teenagers abusing prescription narcotics don’t crush them up before ingestion, they’re still at a high risk of overdosing because their systems are “clean.”
Calling prescription narcotics this generation’s “gateway drug,” Shimabukuro said a common misperception is that it’s safe because a doctor prescribed it.
“They think, ‘It’s a medicine. It can’t hurt you,’” he said, adding nothing could be further from the truth.
The influx of prescription narcotics into high schools and even middle and elementary schools, Shimabukuro said, often begins at home.
“A lot of times people who sell it on the street steal it from medicine cabinets where it’s readily available,” he said. “I always ask people, ‘Where do you keep your leftover pills?’ For most, it’s the medicine cabinet, in the bathroom. That’s the one place you cannot watch people who come into your home.”
Asher said oftentimes people keep medications around, assuming they might get the same ailment again.
Kaua‘i Police Chief Darryl Perry said while the Kaua‘i Police Department and law enforcement partners at both the federal and state levels to continue to arrest and prosecute drug traffickers, the community still needs to be supported by education, prevention and treatment programs.
“Parents, too, must accept responsibility by monitoring their child’s behavior,” he said, such as recognizing aggression, withdrawal or other identifiers that may seem out of the ordinary.
“Communication and continuing dialog (are) keys to unlocking the reasons behind this type of behavior, because the criminal justice system is addressing only the symptoms of a deeper problem that is rooted both in the family structure and society as a whole,” he said.
Linda Mathews said she is hopeful something positive will come out of her son’s death.
The parents hope to create some kind of tradition in which students at an early age plant “Colin trees” and learn about his story.
“Since this tragedy just happened to us, I hope it will open up communication on the island,” she said. “So many people were completely shocked. Even those who knew Colin was dabbling had no idea something like this could happen.”
Editor’s note: Tomorrow the second article in this three-part series will examine the scope of teen drug use on Kaua‘i.