Christopher Matthews inquest: Coroner Paddy McGurgan `in despair' at scale of prescription drugs deaths
As a coroner told of his concerns at the scale of lives lost to Northern Ireland's prescription drug problem, Bimpe Archer looks at the hope and despair that marked the last days of one young victim.
"CHRISTOPHER was supposed to be starting a new job on Saturday. Instead he was lying in a coffin."
Kathleen McKenna recalls how her family had real hopes that, this time, her 22-year-old brother was going to turn his life around.
It had been a hard few weeks in the run-up to Christmas 2016 for the family of Christopher Matthews, as they watched him flail helplessly in the grip of his chronic drug addiction.
"If he had've died before Christmas we would have understood because he was taking a lot of tablets," she told his inquest yesterday.
"But the week up until he died, he had been sober. He had been sober for three or four weeks, from Christmas night.
"And then he died."
Christopher was found dead from an overdose of diazepam and codeine in the bedroom of his north Belfast home by his older brother Kieran on January 24 2017.
In the days before his death, he was reportedly in "good form", looking to the future and keen to stay `clean'.
But his sobriety proved fragile.
The former St Patrick's College (Bearnageeha) pupil's short life had been blighted by addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol.
His GP, Kathleen Collins of Clifton Street Surgery, revealed in a letter to the court that, like so many other drug abusers, Christopher suffered "significant mental health problems" and he had sought help for multiple addictions, "low mood and anxiety".
His sister, the only girl among four brothers and listed as Christopher's next-of-kin, characterised his addiction as periods of abstinence followed by "binges".
Anti-anxiety prescription drug diazepam featured prominently among the `pills' he abused.
He was admitted to hospital in 2011 and again 2014 for intentional drugs overdoses and placed on anti-depressants.
He was admitted to hospital again in 2016, after reporting he was "low in mood, (with) thoughts of self-harm and thoughts of life not worth living".
On December 22 2016, Dr Collins said Christopher had reported "hallucinations (and) feeling suicidal". The day before his death, he attended the surgery for "on-going shoulder pain symptoms" and was prescribed an analgesic.
That afternoon he fell off a bicycle, spraining his thumb, and attended A&E where he was prescribed the opiate codeine.
Mr Matthews told the court his brother had been sober before his pre-Christmas slide back into the morass of pills and depression, saying their father had helped Christopher stay clean before he "left to go to Poland".
Without his father's presence, he said Christopher "went off the rails again".
He was, however, desperately trying to turn his life around, seeking help from support charity St Vincent De Paul, meeting volunteer Sinead Harding on December 19.
"He told us that he had been on drugs and was trying to get his life back together," she said.
Ms Harding said she had the impression during that meeting that he was on drugs, but when she and a colleague called at his Antrim Road home at around 9pm January 23 he was "in good form".
They ordered a new bed to replace his broken one and gave him a £20 Tesco voucher and £50 (for his gas and electricity).
Coroner Paddy McGurgan questioned "on reflection, giving someone who has drug problems £50 cash".
Ms Harding said their role "is to take people at face value", stressing Christopher was "better than the time before".
They left him at Kieran's house in Kinnaird Street, further down Antrim Road, to "drop off keys to his niece".
The court heard that a drug dealer was waiting in a car there and police believe that Kieran, on Christopher's request, bought drugs for him.
Mr McGurgan said "put little store by the evidence given by Mr Matthews", who first refused to comment on and then denied doing so.
Kieran Matthews confirmed that his brother had taken drugs - which originated in Serbia - in his presence, but said it was "very little... two diazepam and four codeine" and Christopher's death "came as a shock".
Christopher returned home, where, assistant state pathologist Peter Ingram believes, he "slipped into a deepening coma" and stopped breathing due to the "high level" of diazepam, with the "theraputic level (of codeine) probably tipping the balance".
"He was good hearted, brilliant when he was off (drugs), a completely different person," Kathleen McKenna said.
"He just did so well the weeks before he died," she said recalling how he managed to secure a job which he was due to start.
The coroner believes it is important Christopher's story is told.
"Despair is what I'm beginning to feel with the amount of deaths I'm having to deal with from prescription drugs," Mr McGurgan said.
"I hope that something positive comes from Christopher's death and that this is reported in the press and somebody reads it, a family reads it and that this is the turning point for someone."