By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, June 27, 1986
Len Bias, the college basketball hero who was heading to professional stardom, took cocaine last week and died, and now the newspapers are filled with stories about this poisonous drug that can attack and kill within minutes. Will the publicity frighten kids away from “The White Lady”? Maybe only until the fuss dies down. Which is why we can’t write enough stories about this powder that destroys — and about its distilled, hardened version known as crack that is purer and even more lethal.
Cocaine is everywhere, easily available on the street, cheaper than it’s ever been because the supply is up and because dealers can manufacture crack at their kitchen tables. For all the talk about heightened law enforcement, dealers in crack are this city’s fastest growing population group — for they know that in selling cocaine in this chunk form, they can carry small amounts, make big money and face shorter prison sentences than for selling the powder because the penalties are based on drug weights.
And cocaine is the democratic drug. Everybody uses it — the poor, the middle-class, the fast-track affluent. Kids in public schools are trying it, and so are kids in private schools. Hooray for the melting pot.
A while back, a state agency did a survey on the availability of drugs in the vicinity of New York City schools. They found that cocaine was being sold outside two-thirds of the schools.
This week, I called my cardiologist, Dr. Peter Pasternack, who has done research on cocaine’s damage to the heart, to get a professional description of what the drug does. He explained that cocaine can attack the body in a variety of ways — sometimes one way at a time, sometimes all of them at once. Let me share some of his observations with you.
“Cocaine releases adrenaline and causes an adrenaline surge,” said Dr. Pasternack. “This stimulates the brain and can make you talkative, restless, excited. It can also make you anxious, confused. You get headaches, your pupils dilate, your temperature rises, you get abdominal pain.
“As the drug’s effect progresses, you can experience delirium, shallow respiration, convulsions — finally lapsing into unconsciousness and death from respiratory and cardiac arrest.”
The time involved in this lethal passage is moments, minutes — not hours or even quarter-hours. It takes only eight seconds for crack to reach the brain.
“What happens with these high, concentrated dosages,” the cardiologist went on, “is that the vital centers of the brain stem are depressed — the nerve signal centers that, when functioning normally, keep the heart and lungs working automatically without us thinking about it. With this nerve conduction blocked, you can suffer tremors, seizures, lose your gag reflex, aspirate [inhale] your stomach contents. The vomit then goes into your lungs and suffocates you. In effect, you drown from your stomach contents.
“Even with a non-lethal dose, your blood pressure and heart rate will increase rapidly, just as with amphetamines. If it goes too high, the result can be a stroke or a cerebral hemorrhage.”
There’s more. Dr. Pasternack noted that cocaine can inflict a direct toxic action on the heart muscle, causing dilation and arrhythmia — meaning a whole rhythm, a muscle out of control. “This can produce almost instant death,” he said.
“Remember also,” he continued, “that in addition cocaine is a vasoconstrictor. It closes down arteries.”
What it all comes down to is that at the very time that the drug is telling the heart to beat faster and faster and at an irregular rate, the vessels that carry blood to the heart are constricting. In short, the heart is placed under an extraordinary demand and simultaneously blocked from meeting it.
Another scary paradox: Cocaine puts the body in a chemical state of fear, but the cocaine-influenced brain — the mind — is feeling and communicating a contradictory sense of euphoria and well-being.
Finally, even if the user experiences no serious illness when taking the drug, there is evidence that cocaine inflicts permanent lesions on the heart muscle — increasing the odds of future heart disease.
“We had a guy come in the other day for a urological procedure,” Dr. Pasternack said. “We didn’t know it, but he had used cocaine just before he came in. He had a near-lethal arrhythmia on the operating table.
“Reports are coming in from emergency rooms all over the country of heart attacks among young people with normal coronary arteries.” Len Bias had normal coronary arteries.
All dosages are not lethal ones, but there’s no way of telling the potency of the stuff you’re buying. There’s no quantity or quality control. When you buy aspirin, you know that each tablet is 325 milligrams. When you buy cocaine, the level of poison is always a mystery.
When I remarked that the teenagers I know best had been stunned and frightened by Len Bias’ death, the doctor said: “They ought to be. Anyone who uses cocaine is playing Russian roulette.”
For a long time, the “beautiful people” tried to sell us an image of cocaine as a designer drug, a recreational high that could do you no harm while it made you feel happy, lucid, creative, powerful.
Now we know that even our super-athletes, those of the rippling bodies with the aura of invulnerability, have been playing Russian roulette. And we also know that they can die, because none of us is bulletproof.