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Duluth couple shares painful message about son's overdose

Luke Hylden died of a drug overdose in March.

Duluth Judge Eric Hylden was consoled by the variety of young people who showed up at the funeral of his 18-year-old son, Luke, last month -- everyone from the Goth in black with multiple body piercings to athletes in letter jackets and all those in between.

The 6th Judicial District judge with chambers at the St. Louis County Courthouse said he doesn't want to lose any of those kids, or see another family go through what his is going through.

"If I can spare one person what we're going through, that would be worth it to me. ... I mean, everybody knows that losing a child is a bad thing, but ..." he said, stopping abruptly.

Hylden said Friday he was told six unprescribed morphine pills were found in his son's pocket at the time of the Duluth East High School senior's death on March 25. Duluth police are investigating how Luke Hylden obtained them.

Kolleen Kennedy, chief investigator for the St. Louis County Medical Examiner's Office in Duluth, said toxicology tests on Luke Hylden show opiates were found in his body. Further screening will identify the opiate and the amount consumed.

"We do have some leads and we're following up regarding how he got the morphine pills,'' said Duluth police Lt. Leigh Wright.

St. Louis County prosecutor Mark Rubin said that under Minnesota law, anyone who "causes the death of another, without intent to cause death by, directly or indirectly, unlawfully selling, giving away, bartering, delivering, exchanging, distributing or administering a controlled substance'' is guilty of first-degree manslaughter. The crime is punishable by a maximum prison sentence of 15 years and a $30,000 fine.

"I really don't want there to be a perception that I'm trying to gain publicity so that somebody else will get punished,'' Hylden said. "In my view, my own son has to be responsible for what he did to himself. He's the one that took them. But what I said to the kids at the memorial after Luke's funeral was 'Please don't do this, even though it looks somewhat benign, or it looks more legit just because it's medicine. If you get past the edge, you can't pull it back. Just don't do this. It's just not worth it.'

"To the extent that I have a podium that I can make this public in order to prevent somebody else from having the same experience, that's why I'm doing this. It's pretty awful.''

Kennedy said the medical examiner's office has seen an overwhelming increase in accidental overdoses from illegally obtained prescription drugs since last January.

"We're averaging a little over one a month, when in recent years it's been maybe three a year,'' she said. Of the last 13 prescription drug overdose deaths her office has handled, 12 of them were ruled accidental and one a suicide, Kennedy said.

However, that is not a precise science. She said her office has to have a note or an obvious reason for a death to be determined a suicide.

Until recently, Duluth police Sgt. Chad Nagorski worked on the Lake Superior Gang and Drug Task Force for four years. He said he saw a "very large increase'' in the illegal diversion of pharmaceutical drugs.

"The illegal drugs like crack cocaine and methamphetamine are a lot harder for people to get ahold of, where pharmaceuticals are legal if you have a prescription and they are being dispersed by doctors,'' Nagorski said.

He said the medicine cabinets of grandparents, especially those who don't take all their medications, can be ripe for picking by. Or, the cabinets of relatives who have recently died may be cleaned out by Junior.

"Kids take those pills and have 'Pharm parties,''' Nagorski said. "They just dump them in a bowl and start taking them and they don't know what they are taking.''

Hylden said his son was a funny, gentle, warm and creative person, who struggled with chemical dependency. Luke suffered from depression and spent six weeks in a chemical dependency treatment program.

The judge said information he has received from the medical examiner's office leaves him no reason to believe that his son's death was anything but accidental. He said he wants to spread the word about safeguarding prescription medication.

"If you take care of your parents, lock up their medications so that they don't become available and that keeps some of it off the street," he said. "If any young adult is out there thinking about this, they might read the story and say, 'OK, I'm looking at a pill and I have no idea what it is and I have no idea what it does, or how strong it is, or whether it would react badly with some particular biochemistry that I have and I'm just not going to take it.' ''

Luke's mother, Debbie Davis, spent 15 years as a grief counselor for parents who lost children. She said always wondered how those people got through each day. Now she has to find a way. She said she would be willing to talk to parents who are going through what she's going through if it would help them.

"I agree with Eric in saying as parents we need to lock our meds up," Davis said. "We talk to our kids about smoking pot and I talked to Luke about meth and heroin and some of the heavy duty stuff, but I never really talked to him as much as I probably should have about the dangers of prescription drugs.''

Tips for disposing of medication

Watch for community medication collection events.

If no collection event is available, follow these steps for safe disposal of medication in the garbage:

-Keep medication in its original container. Cover over the patient's name with marker or scratch it out.

-Modify medication to discourage scavenging. Add a small amount of liquid to pills. Add salt, charcoal or spices to liquid medication. Create a pungent, unsightly mixture to discourage consumption.

-Seal container shut with strong tape.

-Place sealed container inside a non-transparent bag or container such as a paper bag. Do not hide medicines in actual food products.

-Discard the container in the garbage can as close to scheduled garbage pick-up as possible.

-Medications can only be accepted at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District Household Hazardous Waste Facility during special one-day collection events due to US drug laws. No events are currently planned, but check back later for more information. WLSSD Hotline: 218-722-0761.

Source: WLSSD