Did diet pills kill my co-worker and friend?

I remember just moving to Atlanta and having breakfast with a new-found friend I had met while working at a hospital as a registered nurse. The food at our chosen eatery was far from great. But I must say, my friend’s enthusiasm for life, specifically living in Atlanta, was fulfilling enough to make me forget the chef’s lackluster culinary skills. She was warm, outgoing, adventurous, somewhat inquisitive — just what a newbie like me needed to feel right at home in this famous, beloved city. I was coming from a very small town and outside of the wingspan of my large, connected family for the first time. Taylor, I’ll call her, couldn’t have entered my world at a better time in my life.

It was something about Taylor that held some familiarity with me. Maybe it was the fact that we both were nurses and mothers. It could have been that we both had come from large families and were among the younger ones of the clan. Or, perhaps, my connection to Taylor had a deeper meaning — the bold, outward lioness that she was awakened the inner lioness who slept inside of me. We hung out regularly over the next few months, meeting after work for drinks, catching lunch while the kids were away at school and hanging out at each other’s home often just talking and walking through the neighborhood. The times we spent on the phone were just as impressive. We talked about our children, our careers, God, finances, love, sex, pain, our life goals and life lessons.

After about a year or so, life started to increase its demands in me and Taylor’s world. I began working two jobs to subsidize my enhanced Atlantian lifestyle with my days beginning at 5:00 a.m. and not ending until well after nine at night.

Taylor had started a bachelor’s program to further her education in nursing. I was about a semester from completing the same program. My children’s grades were plummeting, and my youngest son still hadn’t quite accepted the transition from our move. So when I wasn’t working or studying, my time and energy were channeled toward promoting their growth academically and personally. Taylor’s children were now old enough to participate in school sports. Her spare time was either on the softball field or at Girl Scout meetings. Her marriage of 10 years had also begun to unravel. With the whirlwind of obligations and challenges that had swept through our lives; we hardly had time, nor energy to make our friendship a focus. Taylor and I saw each other less and less. When we did, it was mostly in passing.

“Jenniferrrrrr,” I heard someone say as I stood waiting to get on the elevator one day at work. I looked back toward the familiar sound to find a thinner Taylor. Her face was a little slender, still beautiful, but not the round, plump face I was used to.

“OMG, Taylor,” I replied, as I reached to hug her. “Girl, you’re so small. What are you doing?”

“Baby, I got me some diet pills off the internet. I had to get rid of all that fat.” She turns her butt toward me. “Wasn’t trying to get rid of this, though,” she jokes.

I glanced down and smiled, “No doctor?”

“Uh … no, my primary wouldn’t give me any. But he didn’t stop anything.”

We chatted a few more minutes before the elevator doors opened. After that day, I saw Taylor maybe four times over a period of two years. Each time, she appeared thinner and thinner, considering she was never all that big to begin with. Her scrubs barely hung on her hips.

It was May 2012, either by fate, or pure chance that we were scheduled on the same floor, with our patient assignment right next to one another. It’s a day that will forever be engraved in my mind like the writing on a tombstone. Taylor was a little more quiet than usual, but we both were busy. I found out she was still “crunching on the pills,” as she had jokingly put it.

“How much more are you trying to lose? I mean …”

“Just ten more pounds then I’m done. I promise.”

“Taylor … you said that when you first started using them. Now it’s been … how long?”

“Yes, I know,” as she reached for a pill bottle in her purse.

I stared at her.

“No, sweetie, this is Tylenol. These headaches are no joke.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize you had headaches.”

“For the last several months, I have. I don’t know, I think stress,” stated Taylor.

“You really need to see a doctor, Taylor. But let me check your (blood) pressure for now.”

I walked over a few feet and got the portable blood pressure machine, and pushed it over to Taylor. She blew a kiss at me as I walked up.

“Let’s see what your lucky numbers are,” I joked. “Taylor! No wonder you don’t feel well.”

“Oh, wow. 198/101, and 119 pulse,” she read out loud. “Yes, girl, you’re right. I’m going to my primary my next day off.”

“Promise me you’ll go. But in the meantime get rid of those diet pills.”

She nodded, “I will tomorrow.”

That was the last time Taylor and I saw each other. Her husband said she had awakened suddenly through the night and said, “Oh my, God,” before going unresponsive.

I began to research and gain more knowledge about the use and side effects of diet medications after Taylor’s death. I found out that the symptoms that Taylor were experiencing had also been experienced by others who had taken certain weight loss medication that contained the drug phentermine. The elevated blood pressure, headaches and increase in heart rate are what the Journal of the American Medical Association lists as possible side effects.

As women, there’s so much pressure on us to uphold an exaggerated image created by a vain society. Being thin was so important to Taylor, that she consumed diet pills she purchased online despite the disapproval of, and the lack of monitoring from her primary doctor. Even her knowledge as a seasoned nurse spoke against this, but I guess the influence of the “Barbie Body” craze was much too strong for my friend to fight.

Jennifer Bradley is a nurse practitioner.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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