For more than two years, there’s been a hole in Jennifer Salo Jimenez’s family.
Since her 23-year-old daughter, Tabatha Salo, died of a prescription drug overdose in 2011, the family has set a place for her at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.
Last weekend, when Salo’s best friend got married in Costa Mesa, there was another place set for her at the reception. Salo would have been the maid of honor.
“That’s exactly what we’re left with,” Jimenez said. “We’re left with an empty chair, you know, in our family.”
They’ve also been left with painful questions. But now Jimenez hopes to get some answers to how a bubbly young woman who loved helping children and was studying to become a social worker ended up dead.
The state medical board is investigating Dr. John Petraglia, a Newport Beach-based pain management specialist, in the deaths of Salo and another woman, spokeswoman Cassandra Hockenson said. He has not faced criminal charges in the deaths.
The medical board is seeking to suspend or revoke Petraglia’s license, saying he didn’t get enough information about patients’ histories and didn’t investigate when urine tests showed Salo (identified as “T.S.” in medical board documents) was taking higher doses than prescribed and taking one drug no one had prescribed.
No hearings have been scheduled. Petraglia’s lawyer, Raymond J. McMahon, didn’t return a call last week; he has said he’ll file a formal response to the medical board accusation but won’t respond in the media.
The experience of Salo’s family is an increasingly common one. Drug overdoses have overtaken car crashes as the leading cause of “injury death” in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The number of overdose deaths more than doubled between 1999 and 2010, to more than 38,000 a year. Sixty percent were related to prescription or other legal drugs and the rest to illegal drugs.
Almost 80 percent of fatal overdoses were ruled unintentional, while 14 percent were deemed suicide, the CDC says. The intent could not be determined in the remaining cases.
Orange County coroner records for the past four years show that, on average, someone has died in the county of an accidental pain medication overdose every other day.
Behind one of those overdose statistics is the story of Salo.
Born in Mission Viejo in 1988, she spent time in Rancho Santa Margarita and Lake Forest before going to Costa Mesa High School. She sang in choir for years and had roles in musicals such as “Wicked” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Jimenez was a single mom, and Salo was her first, so they’d always been close. Jimenez remembered her daughter as a “day-maker” who could always make her feel better. Sometimes, they’d get together to watch “girlie movies,” eat popcorn and giggle.
When Salo was 19, her mom, stepdad and younger siblings moved to San Antonio, but she stayed in California.
“She wasn’t afraid to live on her own,” Jimenez said. “She was excited. She had big plans.”
After high school, she went to cosmetology school but then decided she wanted to work with children instead. She and her grandfather had gone on church mission trips to Mexico to help disadvantaged people.
At the time she died, Salo was living in Mission Viejo and working at an accounting job while going to the University of Phoenix to become a social worker.
Like her mother and grandmother, she had long suffered from back pain, and in 2010, she had breast reduction surgery, Jimenez said. She first went to see Petraglia with complaints of pain in February 2011, less than 10 months before she died, according to the medical board.
In April of that year, her mother visited from Texas and found Salo happy with the results of the surgery and more comfortable with her body than she had been. Jimenez’s husband visited in August and likewise didn’t see anything wrong.
“She was just the same bubbly, beautiful kid she’s always been,” Jimenez said.
They knew Salo was taking pain medication, but it was the same kind Jimenez has taken for her own back problems, so they weren’t worried.
About 11 a.m. on Dec. 20, she got a call from Salo’s sister, Brandi Swenson. (The sisters had different mothers).
“She just said, ‘Jennifer, Tabatha’s gone,’ and I said, ‘Well, where did she go?’” Jimenez remembered.
Hours earlier, Swenson had found Salo dead.
“Here I am, 2½ years later, and still wondering what happened to my child,” Jimenez said recently. “How did this happen?”
Was Salo buying drugs on the street? It doesn’t seem like the daughter who had her first drink on her 21st birthday and never tried illegal drugs. Was she seeing another doctor? Was there some other mix-up?
Jimenez’s lawyer, Rich Collins, said he has filed a request for Salo’s medical records from Petraglia’s office, which he hopes will answer some of those questions. He said he also sent a 90-day notice of intent to sue Petraglia last week.
There are a lot of reasons Jimenez wants to find out what happened to Salo and wants to see Petraglia or others held accountable.
But she said one reason is this: It’s what her daughter would have done for someone she loved.
By ERIC HARTLEY / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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