Bethel mother recalls drive that led to son's death

BETHEL — Jessica Thurston, the driver of a car that crashed last summer in Oxford and led to the death of her 8-year-old son, said her reliance on a methadone maintenance program did not cause the accident, but being tired probably did.

Matthew Thurston

Thurston contacted the Sun Journal on Tuesday, the day a story was published in the newspaper reporting that her extended family was supporting a change in Maine law to make it illegal for anyone using methadone to drive a motor vehicle. Maine law already prohibits people on methadone from driving large commercial vehicles.

The Sun Journal had attempted to interview Thurston for that story, but she said she never received four messages left for her. She agreed to talk to the Sun Journal, but would not agree to have her photograph taken.

During the interview, Thurston glanced at the mantle across the room where the remains of her second-youngest child, Matty, are kept in a simple, carved wooden box with his teddy bear on top and a picture of the grinning, tow-haired boy to the left. A diamond cross on a pearl and emerald necklace that was sent to her by someone she never met hangs from the picture.

Teared well up in her eyes.

“I ask God: Why?” she said of the guilt and pain she feels every day because she lived through the crash, but her son did not. He died Oct. 24, 2011, from his injuries.

Thurston was driving on Route 26 near Welchville village at around 11:30 a.m. Aug. 12 with Matty strapped into a seat belt in the back, when her car crashed into a utility pole. The car went several hundred feet off the side of the road and was airborne three times before it split a tree and burst into flames near the intersection with Route 121.

She told police and a witness at the accident scene that she fell asleep.

In February, the Oxford County District Attorney's Office announced it would not bring charges against her because there was “insufficient evidence of criminal activity.”

Thurston is adamant that despite being on methadone treatment, she and others who take the medication as prescribed and do not drink or do other drugs at the same time can safely drive.

Her statement is backed up by Guy Cousins, director of the state's Office of Substance Abuse Services, who told the Sun Journal that methadone, in its proper dosage and absent of any abuse of other non-opiate medication, has no effect on driver response.

Thurston said there is a “fog” period when the methadone treatment begins and that patients may not be able to drive safely at that time. She said she did not drive herself when she began the program.

Letters from doctors who saw her the day before and after the accident attested that she appeared “alert and orientated” after her daily dose.

She said she was tired but not to the point that she felt she shouldn't drive.

For the past four years, Thurston said she has gotten up at 3 a.m. and is out the door by 4 a.m. She is driven with others to Westbrook where she receives her methadone dose. She is home by 7:30 a.m. each day, except Sunday when she is allowed to take the dosage at home.

The week before the accident, Thurston said she was dealing with removing an infestation of lice and some unexpected family issues, in addition to the driving schedule.

“When you do a schedule like that, it's hard. After a while it catches up with you,” Thurston said. “I just was tired.”

She was heading to the Auburn Mall to take Matty to Jokers and then on to Lewiston where they were going to have Chinese food. But as she drove down Route 26 on Aug. 11, she said she recalled feeling a little tired and saying to her son that it was time to get some Dunkin' Donuts coffee.

“I remember hearing him call, 'Mom,'” she said.

She said she didn't understand why the car wouldn't stop and believes she may have had her foot on the gas pedal instead of the brake.

She broke four ribs and was recuperating at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston two days after the accident when she received word that Matty, who had been taken to the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital in Portland, was going to have surgery to reduce brain swelling.

“I pushed myself. I pushed myself,” she said of her effort to get out of her hospital bed to get to her son.

She spent the next two and a half months staying at or near the hospital, oftentimes by herself, so she could sit with her son and help care for him until he passed away in her arms.

Thurston said she would never have gotten behind the wheel, especially with her child, if she felt she was impaired in any way from the dose she had taken about four hours before the accident or for any other reason.

The 28-year-old mother said she began the daily methadone treatment in October 2007 to wean herself from prescribed and non-prescribed painkillers and prescribed anxiety pills that she had taken occasionally since she was a young teenager.

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Thank you, Kerry, for sharing your knowledge about methadone treatment. Your question, "How many have driven anyhow when they were tired?" is a good one and should caution us against judging others. I myself am usually tired, but I never fall asleep at the wheel because I have the kind of nervous system that just doesn't fall asleep easily, even in bed (if it were easier for me to sleep I might not be so tired--sigh). Others may be wired differently. Not driving is not a very practical option for many people.

I would be sorry to see this incident used to handicap people who need methadone.

It is completely true that

It is completely true that dozens of studies have been done on the ability of stabilized tolerant methadone patients are impaired by their dose in driving, operating machinery, etc and each study has shown that when the medication is not being mixed with other drugs or is not being taken by someone who has no tolerance (i.e., someone taking it recreationally once in awhile), there is no high, no euphoria and no cognitive impairment. I follow these stories as part of my work and have honestly never seen one where it did not later turn out to be either some other reason for the wreck, or the person was on multiple drugs that, in combination, caused the impairment. It may very well be the mother was tired for other reasons which had a tragic result when she chose to drive--but, how many have driven anyhow when they felt tired?

My one question here would be why, if she had been at the clinic for years, she had to go daily except sundays rather than having at least weekly takehomes? BY that time in treatment almost every state allows compliant, stable patient a minimum of weekly takehomes. But perhaps she was on a program, such as medicaid, that did not permit it in her state. I don't know. Seems odd though.

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