Dramatic photo of a hospital hallway.

The Tragic and Unnecessary Loss of Carrie Fisher

Carrie shot to international fame after her appearance in the first Star Wars movie in 1977. Unfortunately, she was almost as well known for her drug and mental health problems as she was for her famous performance as Princess Leia. Ms. Fisher’s autopsy and the toxicology report that has just been published reveals what factors may have contributed to her death at just 60 years of age.

In the coroner’s report published shortly after her death and in the full and final report that was just released, an exact cause of death was never determined. But now more is known about the drugs she had consumed before her collapse and death.

The Story of Her Collapse on a Plane

Carrie had been flying with her personal assistant from London to Los Angeles on the 23rd of December. Soon after the flight took off, she went to sleep. Carrie suffered from sleep apnea, meaning that she would stop breathing while asleep and start again with a snort or gasp. People with sleep apnea can suffer health problems resulting from the intermittent lack of oxygen all night long.

Inside an airplane.

Shortly before the flight landed, she could not be roused. She vomited profusely and then became completely unresponsive, slumping over in her seat. Based on a chest scan done later, it appears that she inhaled some of this vomit, resulting in pneumonia. That’s very common with an incapacitated person.

CPR was administered for a half-hour at which point her heart began to beat. She was rushed to a hospital. Four days later, she suffered a cardiac arrest and was unable to be saved.

Her Drugs

The drug screen done when she entered the hospital showed the presence of methadone, cocaine, opiates and alcohol. Her medical history noted that she was prescribed and took psychiatric drugs Abilify, Lamictal and Prozac. She also took oxycodone which was not prescribed.

The toxicology report published in June 2017 provided a more detailed look at the drugs in the body that may have contributed to her death. The cocaine in her body had already been processed by the liver and other organs, leaving just metabolites (what’s left of a drug after it has been broken down for elimination). That means that it had been a few days since she had consumed this drug.

Similarly, the test revealed metabolites of MDMA, also known as Ecstasy. So she had consumed this drug a few days before as well.

The test also showed diphenhydramine, an antihistamine used for allergies. It is also used as a sleep aid.

Methadone and meperidine (Demerol) were found. The metabolites of heroin were present. Fluoxetine (Prozac) was present at a low level. Ethanol – the kind of alcohol in drinks – was present.

Breathing, Alcohol and Opioids

Opioids like methadone, heroin and meperidine suppress a person’s ability to breathe. So does ethanol. Since Ms. Fisher had already been diagnosed with apnea, a breathing disorder during sleep, she was putting herself at higher risk by consuming this complicated cocktail of drugs.

Even Prozac lists “trouble breathing” as an occasional side effect.

The post-mortem tests found extensive arthritis and mild calcification of her coronary arteries. Her heart was slightly enlarged which can happen with cocaine users. Overall, there were no serious health problems found and so no obvious cause of death. The final report notes: “Atherosclerotic heart disease, drug use” as official contributing factors for her death.

One can’t help but wonder if she had found a way to live drug-free, how many more enjoyable years could she have lived?

AUTHOR

Karen

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.