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Young Woman Whose Addiction Story Inspired Obama Just Died

By Douglas Capraro

People may remember the story of Jessica Grubb after her parents met with President Barack Obama to talk about their daughter’s struggle with heroin addiction. Ever since they sat down to speak, Jessica’s story became a key talking point for Obama whenever he discussed the heroin and opioid epidemic with lawmakers. However, only a week after the Huffington Post published a story about Obama and the Grubb family, Jessica died.

But her death was not due to an overdose. In fact, she had not done heroin for six months before her death. Instead, Jessica death was due to being prescribed a powerful opioid-based medication following surgery.

Her legacy lives on though and serves as a stark reminder of how urgent it is to change our drug policies to better suit the needs of those suffering from addiction. Not only that, but lawmakers are even exploring the idea of a “Jessie’s Law”, which would prevent doctors from accidentally prescribing opioids to addiction sufferers without first being required to know about their drug history.

Jessie’s Story

Jessica’s story first came to light after Obama visited Charleston, West Virginia in October of last year to discuss the opioid epidemic. West Virginia is a state that has been hit the hardest by the epidemic, with the most drug related deaths in the whole country. Although she couldn’t attend herself, Jessica agreed to share her story after a local newspaper solicited questions for the president to answer. Her story, which was both heartbreaking and relatable, struck a cord with Obama.

A photo of Jessica Grubb from her Facebook page.

According to her father David Grubbs, Jessica “was an incredible achiever, she made straight-As, she was smart as a whip, involved in social change.” David is a former state senator, a former community organizer, a lawyer, as well as the father of multiple daughters. He was especially proud of his daughter when, on March 19, 2003, she led a walkout at her high school in protest of the first day of the war in Iraq. Having worked with Ralph Nader during the 1970s and as a community organizer, her father felt like she “she was carrying on the tradition.”

At the University of North Carolina at Asheville, however, Jessica was first introduced to heroin. The next seven years of her life would involve an uphill battle with addiction that included an overdose and the loss of two friends. Jessica’s overdose occurred on August 15, 2015, when her mother found her blue and incapacitated, with a tourniquet around her arm and a needle next to her. Her father said that this experience “literally scared her to death,” and encouraged her to seek help at a long-term rehab clinic in Michigan called Dawn Farm, which followed an “abstinence-based” recovery model.

She thrived and managed to abstain from drug use up until the time she died. She got fast food jobs, a roommate, and lived in Ann Arbor where she could travel to the rehab for meetings. Jessica also continued to follow her passion for long-distance running, which led directly to her developing an infection in her hip bone. This infection is also what led to her death.

Jessie’s Death

Up until this point, it had been six months since Jessica last did drugs. She had also received a similar surgery procedure the previous year. Since she was in the early stages of recovery, though, Jessica’s body was too sensitive to receive some of the medications she was prescribed.

When she went to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, she was prescribed 50 pills of oxycodone. She also received an IV catheter injection port to make it easier to pump medication into her bloodstream. Although her parents objected to the IV port, they had no knowledge that the hospital had prescribed the extremely powerful prescription opioid.

The next day, Jessica passed away due to “oxycodone toxicity,” according to the pathology department at the University of Michigan. The day before, her father reports that she was feeling a bit drowsy but, “was glad to be home, glad to be in her own apartment, glad to be able to sleep in her own bed and she just wanted to get a good night’s sleep and we could talk in the morning.” In retrospect, he realizes she still had the “addict’s brain” though.

When her parents drove to Ann Arbor to talk to police and pick up her stuff, they contacted the doctor’s name on the oxycodone prescription. When asked if he had any knowledge of her past drug addiction, he simply said no.

Jessie’s Law

Initially, the only publication that reported her death was the Charleston Gazette-Mail. But soon, word began to spread to those who had been following her story since her parents spoke to Barack Obama. Now, Jessica’s death has served to raise awareness about some of the major risks addiction sufferers face in the health system.

In addition, her death may also serve to help people in much more concrete ways. For instance, her parents are thinking about suing the hospital. If they win, the money from the court case could be used to open a home for Jessica’s little sister Emma, who has autism. David Grubb has even toyed with the idea of opening a residential facility not just for Emma, “but for other similarly situated adult people who have either autism or other developmental disabilities.” a memorial fund has since been put up in her honor.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who served with David Grubb in the state Senate, has also talked about the idea of introducing a “Jessie’s Law”. This law would prevent doctors from accidentally prescribing opioids to individuals without knowing their medical background, especially past drug addiction issues. 

Many would expect Jessica to have died from an overdose but in fact, the cause of her death was due to the negligence of the health system in regards to people in recovery. Sen. Manchin has already talked to top aides such as White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to find alternative treatments for addiction sufferers in a medical setting, such as holistic treatment. In addition, something like Jessie’s Law would also force the medical community to observe addiction as a health issue. Since a girl like Jessica was able to be prescribed powerful opioid drugs in spite of her history of addiction, this is currently not the case.

According to Jessica’s father, the law would also prevent any kind of prescription that may be harmful to the patient. The process would be done on a computer and could immediately look up possible issues concerning somebody’s medical history. He says, “If you’re allergic to penicillin, that goes on your record, and if a doctor comes in later and tries to write a prescription for penicillin, it’s blocked, you can’t do it.”

So while Jessica’s death remains a tragedy, it may not be the last time something like this happens to an individual with a similar background to her. But as long as Jessica’s legacy lives on and people push for legislation like Sen. Manchin’s proposed law, progress can be made to make the medical environment a much safer place for people in recovery.