Adam Ward didn’t match anyone’s mental image of a drug addict.
Eagle Scout from Johnson County, graduate of the University of Kansas. He had traveled to Israel and Italy to work on archaeological digs.
Ward accomplished those things despite crippling performance anxiety that had dogged him since childhood. He fretted over piano recitals, asking his teacher to give him easy pieces to play. In high school math, he dreaded solving problems at the blackboard.
Even in adulthood, winning a job he had been hoping for sent him into a panic attack.
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“He was an extremely sensitive person,” said his mother, Sharon Ward.
His parents think he may have started to use opioids regularly about the time he entered college in 1997.
After graduating from Olathe South High School, Ward worked a summer job with UPS and developed back pain. A doctor prescribed him the opioid tramadol.
Not only did the pills take care of his pain, they calmed his anxiety and helped him get to sleep.
“He found out how much he liked it,” Sharon Ward said. “I think it was his coping mechanism, coping with life’s problems.”
After college, drugs took over his life. He sold his bicycles, guitars and computers to pay for his pills. He wrote bad checks. He had trouble holding jobs.
“We kept insisting he get help,” his mother said. “He was constantly denying that he had a problem.”
Ward’s parents said they know of at least two doctors who were prescribing him hydrocodone. One of the doctors also was prescribing tramadol, the tranquilizer Xanax and the sleeping pill Ambien.
“He knew not to take combinations of drugs, but he did anyway,” Sharon Ward said.
On April 8, Ward, 36, was at his girlfriend’s home in Raymore. She saw him alive that night. The next morning, he was dead.
The Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office determined the cause was a cocktail of oxycodone, tramadol and Xanax in his system.
Opioids and tranquilizers are a dangerous but common combination, said Diane Peterson, Jackson County’s interim chief medical examiner.
Both types of drugs depress the central nervous system and respiration. An overdose of either can stop a person’s breathing. When the drugs are taken together, “it’s an additive effect,” Peterson said.
A Star analysis of 68 autopsies from Peterson’s office for heroin and prescription opioid-related deaths from the first nine months of 2015 found 16 where tranquilizers were a contributing factor.
Ward’s father, Steven Ward, wishes the doctors who prescribed the pain pills and other drugs had paid more attention to his son’s emotional pain.
“The medical profession is implicated all through this,” Steven Ward said. “… It’s easier to give him the pills than to get at the root of the problem.”