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Ecstasy can kill -- The story of Mercedes 

The Sunday New York Times, June 23, carried a story in its Style section about how the drug Ecstasy (MDMA) is now being widely used in fashionable circles. While a few experts urged caution about the drug's dangerous side, the story painted what I feel is a very dangerous, positive portrait of the drug. I feel compelled to share this story about my daughter's good friend, Mercedes, who took Ecstasy and died in September 2005. She was 13. With her family's support and input, I wrote Mercedes' story for Reader's Digest International, and it was published in the September 2006 Canadian edition. It then appeared in some 20 International RD editions, in more than a dozen languages. I hope it saved a few lives. Please read and share this reprint. Ecstasy is NOT harmless.

 The first time I really saw Mercedes-Rae Clarke, she was standing in the schoolyard in Grade 7, a tiny bird of a girl with big brown eyes and an impish smile. She was 12 years old and my daughter Kate’s new friend.

I had heard about “Merch” from Kate for months. She had moved into my daughter’s Victoria B.C. French Immersion class earlier that year, a new kid originally from Calgary thrown among a tight group of students who had been together since Kindergarten. Soon she was among the most popular in the crowd. I knew that all the boys had a crush on her and that all the girls wanted to be her friend. Kate had been saying for weeks: “Merch says this” and “Merch does that.”

But this day, was the first time I’d had a good look at her. And I thought: “What a bubbly beautiful girl. What eyes!” She had a big smile and a big laugh for someone so petite and delicate. The other girls towered over her.

Over the next 18 months I would get to know Mercedes, driving her in a carpool to dance class each week, often hosting the sleepovers that seemed to occur almost every weekend at someone’s home. This is the Mercedes I knew: an adventuresome, outgoing sparkplug of a kid who loved to shop and socialize, excelled at dance, loved to try out the new hairstyles. My daughter Maddy, two years younger than Kate, idolized Merch because, unlike some of the older girls, when Merch came over Maddy wasn’t excluded. She would brush Maddy’s hair, give her a new hairstyle and include her in all the talk.

She loved to be the centre of attention. A video of Mercedes from a Grade 8 school camping trip shows her sitting around the campfire at night, stuffing one marshmallow after another into her mouth until she reaches an astonishing 10, cheeks puffed out like a crazy chipmunk, while her classmates double over in laughter. That was a typical Mercedes moment:  an imp with eyes dancing in merriment, playing to the crowd.

A few times, on dance class nights, her mother Sherry would call to say she couldn’t get away from work just yet and to ask whether Mercedes could stay with us until she could pick her up. Sherry worked at a downtown Victoria funeral home as a mortician. I knew her call meant that a family was having trouble with a death and she needed to spend extra time with them. “Of course,” I said, knowing first hand the juggle that working mothers do to keep children safe, with friends. 

Sherry was a hard-working, compassionate and strong mother of three. Along with Mercedes, she had one son who was a grown and married adult and a second son, just a year older than Mercedes, who was Mercedes best friend. Sherry had mustered the courage to leave an unhealthy relationship with Mercedes’ father, to forge a new life on her own in Victoria with her two younger children. They lived in the suburbs of Victoria, but Sherry wanted Mercedes to have the benefits of a well-known French immersion program near her work, which entailed a long commute to and from town for the two of them every day. 

The last time Mercedes was at our house, before the fateful day that changed everything, Kate and Mercedes spent a lazy August afternoon, hanging around our backyard, jumping on the trampoline with Maddy, mugging and posing with our digital camera, the picture of happy girls on a summer day, still so innocent and fresh.

And then, a few weeks later, around dinner time on Monday September 5th 2005, the day before they all were to start Grade 9, Kate burst out of her room, tears streaming down her face.

Mercedes, she wailed, had tried the drug Ecstasy. She had never tried any drugs before. She was now in hospital on life support. "She is dying" Kate wailed through her tears.

Our first reaction was utter disbelief. Surely it must be the exaggerated tales of teenagers on MSN, an Internet version of broken telephone where a message becomes hugely distorted in the retelling. 

In the flurry of phone calls that ensued, however, our disbelief turned to shock and despair. The story was true: For some reason that her family and we will never know – maybe peer pressure, maybe boredom, maybe the risk-taking side of her adventuresome spark — Mercedes the day before on a sunny Sunday afternoon, in a lush Victoria park, decided to swallow a tiny pink pill given to her by a friend. She was with two girlfriends, at least one who had tried Ecstasy before and said it was fun. That girlfriend had bought three pills for about $10 each from a guy selling it on the street in downtown Victoria.

For Sherry Clarke and her family and for everyone who knew and loved Mercedes, the questions and circumstances continue to haunt: Why did they do it? What were they thinking? If only tiny Mercedes, who was just 73 pounds, had been bigger and taller like the two other girls maybe her one rash choice would not have been so deadly. If only, if only…

 When the three girls swallowed the little pink pills Mercedes almost immediately began to vomit. Soon, she complained of a terrible headache and then that she couldn’t see. And then, her eyes rolled back into her head and her body contorted in a seizure. One of the girls ran to a nearby house of a family friend to get help.

When Sherry arrived at the hospital, about 90 minutes later, her tiny beautiful bird of a child was unconscious as medical staff worked around her. She'd had an inexplicable hyperthermic reaction to Ecstasy. No one really knows why some people, on exposure to a drug that many find harmless, have a deadly spiking of their body temperature. In some cases body temperature can soar so high - called hyperpyrexia -- that it exceeds 42 C.

Over the next 24 hours Mercedes continued to have repeated seizures, her blood pressure skyrocketed, she had multiple heart attacks and resuscitations. She was placed on life support on Sunday night. Everyone prayed through the night that somehow the dire effects of that tiny pink pill would wear off, that some miracle would save her from her one, terrible choice.

By Monday night everyone’s worst fears had been confirmed: Mercedes brain scan showed no activity. The tiny pink pill had rendered her brain dead. Her mother was then faced with what must be a parent’s most agonizing decision: to disconnect her beautiful Mercedes from life support, donate her organs and let her die. The medical staff gave the family time to say goodbye. On Tuesday September 6th, the halls outside of Mercedes room where full of people: cousins, and aunts and uncles and friends of Mercedes. Sherry asked that close friends like Kate come out to see her.

For Kate and I, saying goodbye to Mercedes in the Pediatric ICU, is a devastating memory that will never leave us. She was lying pale and motionless in an ICU bed, surrounded by machines, tubes in her arm and throat, her lungs rising and falling to the whoosh of a ventilator.  Her beautiful big brown eyes, once so lively and bright, stared out vacant and dull.

The rumour that week abounded that the drug she took must have been laced with crystal meth – how could “fun” ecstasy kill so rapidly? In England the year before, in a case remarkably similar to Mercedes’, a 13-year old took Ecstasy and died, having a fatal hyperthermic reaction, in which the drug caused rapid dehydration, soaring blood pressure and body temperature, seizures, heart attack and brain death.

Mercedes organs were harvested for transplantation and Mercedes was removed from life support that evening. Instead of sending Mercedes’ body to the hospital morgue overnight, as is the usual practice, the hospital allowed Sherry, because she was a licensed mortician, to collect her daughter’s body directly from the operating room. Sherry and her trusted friend Bill, a transfer attendant from the funeral home, wrapped Mercedes in a blanket and with a few close family members took her that night to the funeral home. There Sherry washed and prepared her own 13-year old daughter’s body for her funeral. To me the tenderness and despair of performing such a final act for one’s child is heartbreakingly unbearable.

For Sherry there are important messages she needs the world to know: Mercedes was a good kid from a good home who made a single bad decision.

The coroners report a few weeks later made it very clear: the drug was pure Ecstasy. That too Sherry wants the world to know. “Ecstasy is seen as being the fun drug, the one to take to party and have a good time, not nearly as bad as crystal meth, but Ecstasy can kill, too.”

And Sherry wants other kids across Canada and around the world, if they hear friends talking about trying Ecstasy or other drugs, to remember Mercedes and have the courage to pipe up and say no. Tell them about the risks, tell a parent or a teacher – it could save a life.

“Mercedes made a mistake for all of you. Learn from her mistake,” pleads Sherry.

I know my daughters, through Mercedes death, will never try Ecstasy. “Other kids should know her story,” says Kate.

In the fall of 2005 a few months after Mercedes' death, we pulled out the digital camera for a family occasion. There, on the camera, we stumbled upon a forgotten picture of Mercedes, that last day in August, caught in mid air while jumping on our trampoline, big smile, hair flying, skinny arms and legs all akimbo – so alive and so vigourous. So full of promise.

And, for the hundredth time, my heart broke anew.




Some recent medical literature about brain hyperthermia induced by both prescription and recreational drugs



Review of deaths by Ecstasy


MDMA and body temperature




Posted on Monday, June 24, 2013 at 03:28PM by Registered CommenterAnne | CommentsPost a Comment | References2 References

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