Coroner: Death caused by cocaine, alcohol or both | AspenTimes.com
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Coroner: Death caused by cocaine, alcohol or both

Naomi Havlen

A 29-year-old Aspenite was removed from life support Friday, two days after being found early Wednesday morning unconscious and not breathing.Sarah McLennan was originally from New Zealand, but had lived here for close to eight years, according to her employer at The Wild Fig in Aspen. The Pitkin County coroner said McLennan’s death was caused by a combination of cocaine use and alcohol poisoning.”Basically the alcohol poisoning suppresses respiration and the cocaine makes it more likely for your heart to have an arrhythmia and stop beating,” Coroner Steve Ayers said.Although there were rumors around town that McLennan had choked on gum. Ayers said there was no evidence she had choked severely on the gum or that it had anything to do with her death.Ayers said McLennan arrived at an acquaintance’s home after being out around 1 a.m. Wednesday. People at the house found her around 5 a.m. and called police.Emergency workers found her in full cardiac arrest and transported her to Aspen Valley Hospital. Doctors declared her brain dead about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday.The official cause of death was listed as hypoxic brain injury secondary to ethanol poisoning and cocaine toxicity.Ayers said alcohol and cocaine are the drugs probably most frequently related to deaths in the area.”Since I’ve been coroner, a number of people have died from cocaine toxicity,” he said. “And as an emergency room doctor, I’ve seen hundreds more cases of cocaine toxicity that causes seizures and heart attacks. Cocaine is a dangerous drug in that the amount you take doesn’t correlate to toxicity.”Someone trying cocaine for the first time may experience a fatal heart arrhythmia, while someone else may use cocaine regularly and only feel bad on occasion. Ayers said it’s impossible to know which of the substances killed McLennan.”It’s possible she had enough alcohol to stop breathing, or that she could have survived the alcohol poisoning if the cocaine hadn’t triggered arrhythmia,” he said.Doctors determined the presence of cocaine in McLennan’s system with a urine test, and measured her blood alcohol level when she arrived at the hospital at 0.35, or more than three times the legal limit.Ayers said McLennan’s parents, who were then en route to Aspen from New Zealand, gave permission over the phone to Donor Alliance Inc. to recover their daughter’s organs for use. Donor Alliance is a nonprofit organization that works in Colorado and Wyoming to facilitate the donation and recovery of organs.McLennan was kept on life support until Friday to arrange for the donation process, and Ayers said a surgical team from Donor Alliance flew in to Aspen. He said McLennan’s kidneys were donated. According to website uktransplant.org.uk, kidneys are able to tolerate longer periods without oxygen than other organs.McLennan was well-known around Aspen, having worked at several businesses and restaurants during her years here. Her employer at The Wild Fig in Aspen told The Aspen Times that she was an intelligent and generous person who was well loved and will be sorely missed.A gathering in her memory is scheduled for Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. at The Wild Fig.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com


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