Alex Smick had a wonderful life mapped out for himself. At 20, he was studying to be a surgical technician. He was athletic, played a mean guitar, treasured his tight-knit family and had a lifetime of friends growing up in the suburban L.A. community of Downey. He couldn’t wait to graduate and get a job to start saving money for an engagement ring for his longtime girlfriend.
As his mom puts it, Alex was “living the American dream.”
But in February 2012, this happy future dove into a bizarre death spiral when Alex sought help for prescription drug dependency. In a twisted mix of tragedy and irony, Smick died of prescription medications given at the hospital where he sought relief.
Losing a son is difficult enough. But when Alex’s parents sought answers and accountability, they felt victimized again by a California law that has frozen the value of a human life taken by grievous health care mistakes at the same level for 45 years.
Alex Smick’s life, his parents learned, was worth just $250,000.
His odyssey began in May 2010 when he was riding a skateboard being towed by the family bulldog, Scar. After a bad tumble, Alex couldn’t get up, his back screaming in pain, and his parents rushed him to the hospital.
When an MRI was finally performed after 10 months of haggling with his health insurance company, it revealed serious damage – a stress fracture to his back and five bulging discs. But doctors held off surgery. Alex was too young, they said, let’s try therapy instead. And they prescribed more pain meds. Ultimately, nearly two years into his ordeal, Alex could take no more, and pushed for surgery. But his pain management doctor had one final prescription – morphine tablets.
Alex took one and felt relief. He was overjoyed, so he took another. More relief. And another. By the third, he began to lose track of how many pills he had taken. He grew worried and drove himself to the nearest hospital.
Doctors told Alex they believed he had a problem with his pain meds. He needed to break his dependency on the drugs, they said, recommending he enter a hospital in Laguna Beach. They would treat his back with acupuncture and wean him off the pain killers.
Within two hours of arriving, Alex was back on a new regimen of medications. By the next morning, he was dead.
His distraught parents and extended family struggled with a mix of grief and disbelief. How could this happen?
Answers were slow to come. Ultimately, a toxicology report determined the cause: Alex had died of a poisonous mix of prescription drugs administered in a hospital he entered to get off such medications.
Then, when his family sought accountability and justice, they discovered their quest would be hamstrung by a one-size-fits-all California law that – unadjusted for inflation since its passage in 1975 – put the value of Alex’s life at just $250,000.
“Our son’s life isn’t worth $250,000 to us,” his mother says today. “Alex was priceless.”