The 20-year-old junior pronounced dead at GW Hospital in September died from a lethal mix of cocaine, oxycodone and alcohol, according to a recently filed report from D.C.’s medical examiner.
William Gwathmey, who died on Sept. 19, is the third GW student in as many years to die from a mix of drugs. Since 2011, two other students have died after using substances such as oxycodone, heroin, Adderall and alcohol.
GW’s top student life official, Peter Konwerski, said he has “not seen a trend in regard to drugs on campus,” though he and other administrators “continually review and discuss with students our alcohol and other drug-related outreach programs and policies.”
“Nothing is more tragic than the loss of a student’s life, and we are deeply concerned about the health and safety of our students and hope they utilize the array of resources in Colonial Health Center and other parts of campus to support healthy decision-making,” he added.
Benjamin Gupta, a graduate student, died in his D.C. home from a mix of oxycodone and alcohol in late 2011. A year later, law student John Hroncich died at his home in New Jersey from an accidental overdose of heroin and Adderall.
A former student, 20-year-old Dean Smith, died in the District in January 2013 from an overdose of heroin, diazepam and cocaine. He was not attending GW at the time of his death.
Gwathmey’s death resulted from the “combined toxic effects” of the drugs and alcohol, said Beverly Fields, chief of staff for the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
While cocaine is a stimulant drug, which makes the heart beat faster and blood pressure rise, alcohol has sedative effects that cause respiratory rate to slow down, said Cathleen Clancy, a doctor with expertise in toxicology and the associate medical director at the National Capital Poison Center.
“You have both things acting together,” Clancy said. “If cocaine is getting you too amped up, you might drink alcohol to amp you down, or vice versa.”
Using oxycodone, an opiate drug prescribed for pain relief, can lead to a drop in blood pressure, sleepiness and slowness of breath. Clancy said it can be difficult to predict when all three drugs – oxycodone, alcohol and cocaine – will peak in their effects.
“People use these drugs and they don’t really understand the time of onset,” she said, adding that how much of a drug is taken and the way the drug is taken can also be factors. “All can play a big role in how sick someone gets.”
Police said Gwathmey had gone to several nightclubs the night of his death and then returned to an apartment at The Residences at the Ritz-Carlton on 23rd Street. He was later found unconscious on a couch, according to a police report.
His death was ruled an accident. His parents, Gaines Gwathmey and Rose Harvey, did not wish to comment.
The economics and finance major was remembered as close to his family and constantly surrounded by friends, hoping to one day work on Wall Street. Family and several members of his fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, started a foundation in Gwathmey’s honor for low-income D.C. students to learn basketball skills.
Konwerski, GW’s dean of student affairs, said Health Promotion and Prevention Services, formerly the Center for Alcohol and other Drug Education (CADE), offers a workshop with information about combining alcohol with other drugs. It also explains how alcohol can affect the body and what students can do in an emergency.
“The University is committed to promoting the health and safety of GW students and offers many services and resources to educate and support healthy lifestyles and responsible decision-making about alcohol and drugs,” Konwerski said.
Nationwide, drug overdose death rates have more than doubled between 1999 and 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2012, nearly 80 percent of drug overdose deaths were unintentional.
That same year, more than 70 percent of deaths related to pharmaceutical overdose involved prescription painkillers.
Colleen Murphy contributed reporting.