NEW YORK — – "Her temperature was 108, she had had a seizure, she had bit her lip and it was swollen, all her organs were shut down from the heat and she was bleeding from everywhere," the Naperville, Ill., mother said in an interview. "Blood was coming out of her mouth and from all the tubes and things they had in her. They were trying to pump blood into her, but they couldn't pump it in fast enough."
What started as overheating on a night of dancing led to a seizure and then to a coma. By the time Sara was rushed to the hospital, her internal organs were already starting to be destroyed. At first, doctors and friends thought she was having a rare reaction to the drug ecstasy.
Now authorities say the outgoing, nature-loving teenager's sudden death in a Chicago suburb may be the first fatal evidence that a powerful new drug often disguised as ecstasy is making its way into the U.S.
Autopsy results concluded Sara died of an overdose of paramethoxyamphetamine, or PMA, in a friend's home in middle-class Naperville on the morning of May 14. The high school senior thought she was taking the far more common methylenedioxy-n-methylamphetamine, also called MDMA or ecstasy, police said.
Today's world of illicit synthetic drugs is the dark side of this century's considerable advances in pharmaceuticals. By slightly modifying the basic molecule of the amphetamine — or "speed" — drug, chemists are able to create such disparate products as diet pills and Ritalin, which is used to treat attention-deficit disorder.
By tinkering further, chemists can create ecstasy, PMA and a host of other illegal substances that generally act as stimulants but can have different, and sometimes deadly, side effects. Many of these synthetic drugs are popular with the club crowd because they tend to keep energy levels high all night long.
Same Label, Different Danger
Ecstasy and related drugs often come in pills stamped with a logo that acts as a brand name for a particular underground drug lab and are meant to ensure quality. Just as in the apparel or perfume industry, rogue factories will put out knock-offs with the same logo but lower quality.
On the night before her death, Sara Aeschlimann took as many as seven pills emblazoned with the three-diamond "Mitsubushi" symbol, thinking it was the product of an established ecstasy lab. She was wrong — they weren't from the "Mitsubushi" lab, and they weren't ecstasy. They were PMA.
"It looks like ecstasy, even down to the logo," said Michael Hillebrand, spokesman for the Chicago branch of the Drug Enforcement Administration. "It's the same-sized tablet, the same color, the same feel, the same texture, the same price, they're sold by the same people, sold in the locales and sold to the same users. We're talking if you lay two of them side by side, it would take a forensic chemists doing a chemical analysis to do a difference."
And that's the true danger of PMA, drug experts warn. Because PMA resembles ecstasy and has similar effects, dealers pass off the cheaper drug as its more popular cousin. Drug users often don't know the difference until it's too late.
PMA: The Newer, Deadlier Ecstasy
Though PMA closely resembles ecstasy, experts warn that the newer drug is far more deadly.
"Ecstasy increases your pulse rate and gives you this warm feeling, but is rarely fatal, though it has other long-term effects," Hillebrand said.
"With PMA, taking the same dosage amount (as ecstasy), you receive a less-intensive feeling within your system. People then think that they're getting weak ecstasy and then they take two more. Now it's too late. Within a matter of a few hours, your internal body temperature rises out of control. At 103, you're talking brain-neuron damage. At 104, you start go into a coma. At 106, your internal organs start to shut down.
"Ecstasy is bad," he added. "PMA is death."
PMA has been blamed for deaths in Australia and Canada, but was relatively unknown in the U.S. until recently, Hillebrand said. Emanuel Sferios, the executive director of DanceSafe, a national nonprofit that aims to prevent drug-related deaths and injuries in the rave and nightclub community, said dealers and manufacturers have been adulterating or substituting PMA for ecstasy because it's easier and cheaper to make .
Because the drug is so new and the drug community naturally clandestine, Sferios and Hillebrand said there are no reliable statistics on PMA use in the U.S. and no telling whether it's coming from across the Canadian border.
How can teens best be warned against the dangers of the drug? Experts disagree. But Jan Aeschlimann said the most persuasive argument against drug use she has seen was in a bed at the critical unit at Edward Hospital in Naperville: a dying girl who was planning on taking college courses and flirting with the idea of becoming an interior decorator.
"If kids Sara's age and friends of hers saw her that way, they would never take drugs again," she said.