What can we learn from Gerry Ryan’s death?

Gerry Ryan

I was saddened this week to read of the coroner’s verdict on the death of the radio DJ and TV personality Gerry Ryan (53). I have vivid memories of listening to Gerry late into the night in the mid 1980’s as I worked away in the Pharmacology laboratory in University College Galway, Ireland – on my experiments for my PhD degree on possible mechanisms of action of antidepressant drugs.

It was the middle of a devastating recession with thousands of young people including myself preparing to emigrate and very unsure of what fate awaited us. I vividly recall a riveting moment when alone in the lab one evening I was literally stuck to the floor as the then popular Terence Trent Darby’s song ‘Sign you name across my heart’ came on air and in the background was Gerry’s weary yet empathetic voice saying…’I wish you well my friends as you sign your name on your passports, on your visas, on you dole cards.’  It must be over 25 years ago but that memory has always remained with me. The power of memory! But that’s for another blog post.

Cocaine and Alcohol – a potentially lethal mix

Over the past two decades I have given talks in schools and colleges on how addictive drugs including cocaine affect the brain and it still amazes me how little the general public understand  how these potentially lethal drugs work.

The post mortem showed the Gerry had died from an abnormal heart rhythm which was likely to have been triggered by cocaine. Gerry also had “cocaethylene” in his system, which is produced when cocaine and alcohol are mixed.

Both cocaine and alcohol have very different modes of action on the brain. Cocaine is a stimulant which elevates mood, increases heart rate and puts your brain into a vigilant attentive state. Alcohol is what’s called a narcotic- a nervous system depressant – which puts you to sleep. What both drugs have in common however is that both are highly addictive.   Not only that but some studies show that when alcohol is taken before (the cocaine), it causes a greater buzz and that an alcohol and cocaine combination is 25pc more potent. To make matter worse at high enough doses both alcohol and cocaine are anesthetics – drugs that switch off important nervous functions – which does not help either.

More harmful drugs found in the cocktail

Other drugs also found in Gerry’s body were Levamisole, a veterinary medicine until recently used to treat parasitic worm infections in humans and commonly used as a cutting agent in cocaine where it adds bulk and weight to powdered cocaine (whereas other adulterants will produce smaller “rocks” of cocaine) and makes the drug appear more pure.

Also found was a small quantity was codeine – a powerful pain killer from the opiate family of morphine-like drugs –  and sold over-the-counter as Nurofen Plus or Solpadine.  Gerry probably took this because he was in some discomfort.

It is clear from reading newspaper reports that Gerry Ryan’s friends and loved ones are deeply shocked by the revelations of the inquest, insisting they had no idea about Ryan’s cocaine use. It is particularly sad that our memories of this popular broadcaster may be tarnished by the revelation. Many of his media friends have urged people not to let this be the case, and to remember Gerry for his talent and not the sordid nature of his death.

Today FM broadcaster Ian Dempsey has told the Herald newspaper that he would “It’s a pity that something like this has to overshadow what he achieved during his life. I don’t think it’s of any benefit to anyone.”

While I agree to an extent with Dempsey, I do think that Gerry’s death might be of some benefit if it opens up a debate on how we as a society deal with stress. We have heard that Gerry was under a great deal of stress in the days and weeks leading up to his death, and we are led to surmise that alcohol and drug taking was his way of coping. In this he is not alone. As the world economy continues on its downward slide, and unemployment and financial worries beset us, are we going to turn more and more to these quick fixes to handle our dis-stress?

Probably the most important lesson to be taken from Gerry’s death is the realization that the stresses of life and how we manage them IS the difference between life and death. I look forward to developing this theme in greater detail including drug-free tips on how the avoid worry and stress in future posts, but in the meantime, my deepest sympathy go to Gerry’s loved ones at this difficult time.