07.02.09

Chopra: Michael Jackson Could Have Been Saved

Michael Jackson’s famed health guru, Deepak Chopra, tells The Daily Beast’s Gerald Posner about his grief, his own medical dealings with the singer—and how a simple emergency-room drug could have saved his life.

“I will not be doing any more interviews,” Deepak Chopra, the famed mind, body, wellness guru and 21-year friend of Michael Jackson, told me. “No more TV, no more print. If someone calls, I can tell them I spoke to you in depth. I just want to mourn now for my lost friend.”

Chopra will talk to the media at some point, of course, but right now he says he is emotionally and physically exhausted. In a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Beast, Chopra, a board-certified internist and endocrinologist who also formerly worked as an emergency-room doctor in Massachusetts, made several points to try to clarify the circumstances surrounding the pop star’s death. Among them:

Based on his understanding of Jackson’s final hours, a common and well-known overdose antagonist, naloxone (narcan), could have saved him.

When Chopra learned that Dr. Conrad Murray had been Jackson’s full-time concert physician and had stayed overnight, he wondered why the star wasn’t still alive.

Chopra made his own efforts to force an intervention a year ago over Jackson's drug use, with the Jackson family's knowledge and approval.

Stars get these drugs using fake names, multiple prescriptions, and complicit pharmacists.

Chopra's friendship with Michael Jackson brought him to the fore immediately after the pop star’s death, and he made known to Larry King his strong feeling that Jackson’s prescription addiction had been fed by unscrupulous doctors. The news last night that the Los Angeles Police Department had asked the Drug Enforcement Administration to officially enter the investigation must have sent a chill through dozens of Hollywood doctors who feed the drug habits of star clients. And for those who were Michael Jackson’s legal pushers, the DEA's move is indeed bad news.

“With a weak pulse, the first thing I would have given him was narcan. Its effect would have been dramatic and Michael might be alive today.”

posner-jackson-chopra_35602
Courtesy of Dilip Mehtra/Contact Press Image

“But it is long overdue that someone does something about this,” Chopra said. “It’s an epidemic. Far more people die every year from prescription medicine than from illegal drugs. It is the No. 1 cause of addiction.”

Chopra, who has built an international wellness and self-help empire, says that only 1 percent of his clients are celebrities. But the public often thinks of him as a New Age wizard to the stars. And with his main Chopra Center based in Southern California, he spends a lot of time there.

He had come to have his hunches about some of the doctors who abuse their prescribing rights, but won’t name them on the record. “Not all of them are these so-called concierge doctors. Not at all,” he told me. “Many have regular practices. It is well-known that a very high percentage, maybe half, of all enabling doctors have their own prescription or alcohol problems. They have developed co-dependent relationships with their patients, and their drug-pushing has become part of their identity. By continuing to enable a famous person, as a doctor you have control over them. The star is dependent on them.”

Many people forget that the 62-year-old Chopra is a medical doctor, one heavily involved in continuing research. He cited a series of clinical studies that establish that, for some people, the heavy use of opiates causes hyperalgesia, a condition in which the drugs damage the peripheral nerves and actually increase the level of pain.

“So what you have in Hollywood between the wealthy and celebrities,” said Chopra, “is that almost all these excessive prescriptions are written by doctors without any training in the field of addictionology, an emerging speciality. As a result, the doctors keep increasing the dosage and the frequency in an attempt to alleviate the pain, and in some cases they make it worse. Once the patient’s pain increases, the patient has no idea they have developed hyperalgesia. So they think, ‘If I wasn’t taking narcotics, it would be even worse.’ The drug-pushing doctor has them trapped.

“I have had major celebrity clients, of the same stature as Michael Jackson, ask me for drugs. And when I probe them about why they need it, they never call me back. These are very high-profile people. But I am firm. ‘Don’t you ever ask me for that again,’ I tell them.”

Years ago, after Chopra rose to fame, he was at a Hollywood party packed with A-list celebrities. The next day, he said he got a call from a pharmacist “confirming a refill for a top star,” for a large order of a controlled substance. “I had just met that person at the party the day before. I told the pharmacist I never wrote it. And then I called the person and confronted them,” he said.

It was not the last time it happened. “I stopped going to Hollywood parties as a result,” he told me. “But for every doctor like me who says no, there are many more who will not say anything to that pharmacist when they call, even though they know they did not write the prescription. The allure in Hollywood of gaining a major star as a new patient is too much for some doctors to bypass.”

Deepak’s voice is heavy with emotion when he talks about Michael Jackson. He had met the singer in 1988, when he had been invited to Neverland as part of a daylong party: “And he was so shy, he barely said anything.” At one point, Chopra discovered a jukebox. It was coin-operated, and Jackson urged him to play a song. “So to tease him, I did not play one of his songs, but instead chose Saturday Night Fever. And Michael smiled when he heard for the first chords. Then he started dancing and suddenly that shy boy transcended in front of me into someone completely different.” They played music all night, and Jackson was “unstoppable.”

The two became quick friends. Jackson would stay with Chopra and his wife when they lived in Massachusetts, and Chopra accompanied him occasionally on tour. The Jackson he met and grew to like was initially not only drug-free, “but he didn’t touch a drop of alcohol, not even aspirin. He would only drink water. He had been raised by his mother [as a Jehovah's Witness] to use nothing at all, and it was still part of his life.”

Jackson lived a “holistic” life when Chopra met him, and the wellness guru taught him how to meditate. Over time, they spent long hours in overnight conversations, and Jackson opened up to Chopra as if he were a therapist. It was in those talks that Chopra learned about what a tortured soul Jackson was.

Jackson shared with him intimate details about the violent household in which he grew up. “He was very damaged from his childhood,” Deepak told me. His father had been physically abusive and also verbally taunted him for having too big a nose and being weak and ugly. When Jackson had gone to “witness” for his religion—where Jehovah's Witnesses go door to door to proselytize about their faith—he had hated it, he told Chopra, and sometimes strangers would chase Jackson away screaming obscenities and insults. A patchiness to his skin made him feel odd, and he refused ever to put on a bathing suit and go swimming, no matter how many times friends urged him to do so.

“What became his compulsion with cosmetic surgery,” Chopra told me, “was an expression of self-mutilation, a total lack of respect for himself. He was so ashamed of his body image, he had no self-esteem. It was only on stage, when performing, that he became someone comfortable in his own skin. It was there that he was no longer a person in emotional distress, but instead someone dancing in the world of the Spirit.”

In 2005, after Jackson was acquitted in his sexual-abuse trial, the singer came to spend a few days with the Chopras before leaving for an extended stay in the United Arab Emirates.

“And that was the first time he ever asked me for a prescription,” Chopra told me. He wanted oxycodone, a powerful opiate pain reliever. Chopra refused. Jackson pleaded with him.

“You are my friend,” Jackson said. “I have a lot of pain.”

Chopra stood firm: “I was alarmed.” When Chopra began making quiet inquiries with mutual friends, he quickly learned that the singer “was getting a lot of stuff from a lot of people. He had doctors in Miami, doctors in Los Angeles, everywhere.”

The next day, Jackson decided to leave. But before he did, Chopra sat him down and asked him, as a friend, to come clean about his drug use. “I don’t want to talk about it,” the singer told him.

Over the next several years, the two stayed in touch, but they never discussed Jackson’s drug use until someone close to Jackson came and asked Chopra for help to intervene with the singer.  When Jackson discovered what they were up to, he temporarily stopped talking to both his friend and to Chopra. Subsequently, the Jackson family tried its own failed intervention.

“There was no one then, not even his mother, who could get through to him,” Deepak told me. “That is because although he trusted me, he could not eventually reveal all of himself to me. He could not do that to anyone. He did not know how to trust anyone with his soul.”

Two days before he died, Jackson called and left Chopra a cellphone message. “I want to share some good news with you,” he said.

Chopra didn’t check the message until the next day, and when he called back, the number left was not working. “I didn’t think anything was unusual," he said. "Michael frequently changed his numbers.”

And then a day later, Chopra learned from a friend that Michael was dead. It was numbing news.

“I cared for him deeply. I understood that in the context of his life that all his behaviors that seemed so odd to so many, were absolutely understandable. He often said to me, 'No one understands me. No one.'”

When Chopra learned that Dr. Conrad Murray had been Jackson’s full-time concert physician and had stayed overnight, he wondered why the star wasn’t still alive. I told him that Dr. Murray said he had checked on Jackson several times during the night. Chopra lit up: “That means that the doctor knew he had a patient with a serious drug problem. The only reason to check on someone overnight is to make sure they have not taken too many drugs and they stop breathing.”

If Murray knew Jackson had a drug problem—“which it is hard to imagine that any doctor would not quickly realize with Michael at this time”—then Chopra is bewildered by the failure of Murray to have naxolene, a well-known narcotic antagonist used to revive patients with drug overdoses. “I used to work as a doctor in an emergency room, and there were many times when I saw someone brought in who had overdosed, and by injecting naxolene, the results were often remarkable.”

That Murray says Jackson was still warm, and had a weak pulse, is further evidence to Chopra that naxolene might have saved him. “With a weak pulse, the first thing I would have given him was narcan [the drug’s trade name]. Its effect would have been dramatic and Michael might be alive today. No one has been able to answer why he had so many drugs in his house, but the attending physician did not have naxolene in case of an overdose. I don’t understand it.”

But Chopra doesn’t blame Murray. It’s the prescribing doctors at whom his anger is directed. “We put drug pushers in jail but give licenses to doctors to do the same thing. It is impossible to go after them legally in most cases, and that makes them totally indiscriminate. I know personally that they write multiple prescriptions and they even use false names. And they know which pharmacists won’t check identifications, or will allow someone else to pick up the prescription. It’s impossible to track the prescriptions to see that they were given for one patient. This cult of drug-pushing doctors, with their co-dependent relationships with addicted celebrities, must be stopped. Let’s hope that Michael’s unnecessary death is the call for action.”

Gerald Posner is the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism ( www.posner.com). Posner lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.