Did Valium Kill My Mother?

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This is a true story. The names are changed and the author, the daughter, chooses to remain anonymous. It happened many years ago, but the issues remain the same.

At 72, Joan was an intelligent, accomplished woman who had suffered a stroke. She had trouble communicating, which frustrated her, but otherwise she was doing well.

Joan lived in a retirement community, surrounded by her own furniture and even her prized rose bushes, which were planted outside of her window. She was able to dress and feed herself and she even took her medicines without supervision–which turned out to be a mistake.

Joan had high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, arthritis, and a host of other occasional complaints. She went to several different doctors to deal with her various ailments, all of whom took out their pads and wrote prescriptions for drugs which she dutifully took.

She also had medicine to help her sleep and she took benzodiazepams–Valium, specifically–for anxiety. Any time she thought that she might be upset, she took a Valium. Those pills were her crutch and she was never without them. She wrapped them in Kleenex and tucked them up her sleeve. She kept a container in her pocket, another one in her purse, also in her bathroom cabinet and next to her bed.

Apparently no one was aware of her stash of Valium, so when her doctor–who prescribed them and approved all the refills– said he thought a trip to visit relatives and one of her oldest friends, a three hour drive away, would be good for her, she stocked up on her anti-anxiety crutch and went. The trip was a success and for some reason–maybe it was a tearful visit to her oldest and dearest friend who was in a wheelchair– the anxiety and worry vanished. She stopped popping her Valium, cold turkey. Two days later she had seizures and a massive stroke. The next day she died.

After her death, my brother and I found all the drugs she had hidden in her room, put all 47 containers of prescription medicine in a carton and handed it to her doctor who wrote most of the prescriptions. Apparently unaware of, and seemingly not bothered by, his overzealous prescribing, he merely said he knew of a clinic in Central America where the drugs would be put to good use.

Joan’s experience illustrates many of the concerns about seniors like my mother and drug use: Lack of supervision, free and easy prescribing patterns, more than one doctor prescribing, prescriptions being filled by different pharmacies so potential interactions are not identified, and the habit of seniors who have become dependent on a drug to horde and hide.

How much of her “anxiety” might have been due to drug interactions will never be known, nor will it be known if Valium was responsible for her death.. No one ever looked at all at what she was taking or how often. It is known, though, that withdrawal should be gradual and to stop taking a drug like Valium “cold turkey,” especially when typical use was an overdose and the drug has a lengthy half-life can lead to seizures and other problems. In this case it did.

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