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Toddler deaths highlight “collateral damage” in opioid crisis

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Leon Kelly - COURTESY CORONER’S OFFICE
  • Courtesy Coroner’s Office
  • Leon Kelly
A ny life claimed by opioid overdose is a tragedy, but seeing a life snuffed out that’s barely begun is heartbreaking.

Two toddlers lost their lives to opioid/opiate drugs last year in unrelated incidents, which El Paso County’s Deputy Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly says “highlights the collateral damage of an opiate epidemic.”

While Kelly described toddler drug deaths as “relatively rare,” he adds, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence we’re seeing them now at the same time we’re seeing massive numbers of adult overdoses. At some point they [opiates] are going to fall into the wrong hands.”

Both deaths came in households where someone had been prescribed the drugs, and in one case, the pills were kept under lock and key.

The first happened in November, after a 16-month-old boy’s stepmother dropped him off at the home of his grandmother, who had a prescription for oxycodone. Though the pills were kept on top of the refrigerator, the boy apparently found one on the floor.

“While the child had a normal breakfast,” Kelly says, “about 11:30 [a.m.] he started showing signs of illness. He started to fall asleep. He vomited curdled milk. He went back to sleep for hours, which is very, very unusual for this kid.”
When his stepmom picked him up that evening, he slept all the way home. “He was unarousable, which was atypical for this child,” Kelly says.

Once home, his stepmom laid the baby down with a blanket, and when she checked on him a short time later, he appeared close to death. He was rushed to the hospital where he died. “They were never able to figure out how a pill got on the floor,” Kelly says.

Similarly, in December, a mother took her 1-year-old to a relative’s house on her way to work. The home is occupied by several other family members, one of whom had a prescription for morphine.
“The baby started to become ill and got progressively worse,” Kelly says. “Then, she was picked up later that day and taken home and later that evening, she [the mother] noticed the baby was falling asleep at the table. She didn’t want to eat or drink.” Her mother put the child to bed, and when she checked on her later, she couldn’t be revived. Though she was taken to the hospital, she died.
Kelly described that family as “super cautious,” because they’d had a similar episode months earlier. Though in the earlier incident, the child was found not to have ingested a pill, the family bought a safe to secure the drug, and used a container equipped with a combination lock to hold a few pills for daily use.

“They had done everything they could possibly do after the scare they had,” Kelly says.

An investigation didn’t reveal how the baby got the morphine, but Kelly says it’s believed she found it on the floor where it had dropped months earlier.

Signs of opiate overdose in children include vomiting and a state of being “almost unarousable,” Kelly says. “Call 911,” he advises, “because you’ve got to be concerned if there’s any chance they have access to pills.”

Be alert too, Kelly says. While pushing his kids on a swing set at a public playground in Colorado Springs, Kelly’s shoe scuffed the sand, and out popped an 
oxycodone pill.

“When we have a city and country flooded with these drugs,” he says, “they can be anywhere.”

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