Cocaine use a ‘significant factor’ in death

RECENT cocaine use was a “significant factor” in the death of broadcaster Gerry Ryan, an inquest has heard.

The 53-year-old father-of -five was found dead at his apartment at Upper Leeson Street, Dublin 4, by his partner Melanie Verwoerd on April 30, 2010.

He died of a cardiac arrhythmia with recent use of cocaine as a “significant risk factor” in the presence of heart disease, Dublin City Coroner’s Court heard yesterday.

Toxicology screening following the broadcaster’s death found his urine was positive for breakdown products of cocaine, which were in low levels.

A moderate level of alcohol was also detected in his blood and urine.

“Cocaine consumption is the likely triggering event,” said pathologist Dr Eamon Leen, who carried out a post-mortem examination following Mr Ryan’s death and who gave evidence at the inquest via Skype.

“He had a toxic reaction to cocaine,” said Dr Leen, who described it as an “unpredictable drug”.

Coroner Dr Brian Farrell recorded a verdict of death by misadventure.

Ms Verwoerd, who broke down in tears and had to leave the courtroom after giving evidence in the witness box, told the coroner that Mr Ryan was under an extraordinary amount of stress and was very unwell for about 10 days before he died.

He was trying to sort out his separation agreement and he felt under a lot of pressure from RTÉ, she said. He was also under tremendous financial pressure, some of it linked to the recession, she said.

“This started to take a toll on him,” she said.

Ms Verwoerd described how, over the last two weeks of his life, Mr Ryan “barely slept”.

“I was concerned and I begged him to go to a doctor. He said it was only stress. He said it was just panic attacks.”

She said he complained of pressure on his chest and pains in his chest and had stomach cramps and vomiting. There were some mornings he found it difficult to get into the shower and needed help.

She said that because of a change in sick leave policy at RTÉ he felt he couldn’t stay home.

The inquest heard that Ms Verwoerd last spoke to Mr Ryan at 11.40pm on the night prior to his death, after he had returned to his apartment from a meal at the Town Bar and Grill with friends. He told her he was tired and wasn’t sure if he would make it into the programme the following morning.

He called the producer of the Gerry Ryan show, Alice O’Sullivan, at midnight and told her he was feeling exhausted and that he didn’t think he’d make it in in the morning. She told him to take the day off and to rest for the bank holiday and he replied he “owed her one”.

Ms Verwoerd thought it was strange when Mr Ryan didn’t ring her on the morning of April 30, as he usually called her at 7am and again on the way to work.

She called to his house, but couldn’t get in due to the security chain and then phoned work to find he had cancelled his radio programme. She was glad to hear that, as she assumed he was getting some sleep.

She went to work, but left around midday and went back to Mr Ryan’s apartment as she was anxious that he had not answered any of her calls or texts. She was unable to get in and “called out his name a number of times to wake or to get his attention”.

After contacting her son, Ms Verwoerd asked a builder to help her get into the apartment as she had locked herself out. Alan Ball used a chainsaw to cut the security chain. Ms Verwoerd then entered the bedroom where she made the tragic discovery.

After first feeling relief that Mr Ryan was not on the bed, she noticed his feet, which were a “funny colour”, “sticking out from the far corner of the bed”.

He was lying on the floor on the right-hand side with bed sheets around him and looked as if he had “rolled off the bed”.

“I said ‘Gerry what’s going on?’ and I realised he was very cold and stiff.”

He was dead for at least six hours, the inquest heard.

Questioned by the coroner as to whether cocaine was ever an issue, Ms Verwoerd said “absolutely not” and that one of the ground rules of their relationship was no drugs.

“In the two years I was with Gerry I was confident he kept that promise to me to the night of his death. I was never aware anything was used,” said Ms Verwoerd, who crumpled in grief as the post-mortem results were heard in court.

A post-mortem screening indicated a trace amount of benzoylecgonine, a breakdown product of cocaine, in Mr Ryan’s blood.

His urine was also positive for low-level benzoylecgonine and cocaethylene, a combination of cocaine metabolites and alcohol. The metabolites have a potentially toxic effect on the heart. Cocaine and alcohol are more toxic than cocaine on its own, pathologist Dr Leen said.

Levamisole, a veterinary medicine commonly used to ‘cut’ cocaine was also detected, as was codeine.

The pathologist agreed with coroner Dr Brian Farrell that the levels of breakdown products of cocaine found in Mr Ryan’s blood and urine indicated recent use of the drug.

The post-mortem also indicated Mr Ryan had chronic damage to his heart, which could have been due to previous cocaine use or a previous viral infection which attacked his heart.

Dr Leen said that in a damaged heart the addition of cocaine makes the risk of a cardiac event greater.

There was no evidence of a heart attack. He had a level of coronary artery disease, which the pathologist said he wouldn’t regard as significant.

His wife Morah Ryan also gave evidence and said that she identified the body of her husband at the city mortuary in Marino to Sergeant Gerard Sexton.

The coroner said Mr Ryan’s heart condition meant death could have occurred at any time from a cardiac arrhythmia — an electrical disturbance in the heart — but he added it is known that cocaine causes such disturbances or dysrhythmia.

“This is a sudden unexpected death in the presence of a significantly damaged heart with recent cocaine use as a significant risk factor,” he said.

He recorded a verdict of death by misadventure.

The coroner expressed his condolence to the Ryan family and to Ms Verwoerd on his death.

“The burden of grief falls on you all. On behalf of the community, I want you to know how much we all empathise with you in your grief,” he said.

Picture: Gerry Ryan's wife Morah and son Rex leaving the inquest into his death at Dublin Coroner's Court. (PA)

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