Twenty-nine-year-old Jill Carol Skolek was a single mom in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. April 29, 2002, was the first time her six-year-old son, Brian, had come back from school and not found her waiting for him at the bus stop near their house. When he got home he discovered his mother in bed, in what he thought was a deep sleep. He fixed a snack, spent a few hours watching cartoons and playing with toys, and then crawled beside her and fell asleep. The next morning, when she still seemed asleep, he shook her and kept yelling “Mommy.” Finally, he called 911. “I need your help. I think my mommy’s heart stopped.” Only when the EMS arrived did they realize that Jill had been dead since the previous day.
Jill’s mother, Marianne Skolek Perez, a part-time nurse, lived 30 minutes away in Whitehouse Station. The unexpected death of her daughter left her to care for her grandson. Marianne could not understand why her daughter died. Her only physical problem was a recent back injury. Friends and family packed her funeral three days later. The obituary in the Courier-News read in part: “Jill, I love you with all my heart and am truly proud of the way you raised your son. Rest in peace precious daughter until we can be together again. Love Mommy.”
One morning, a week after Jill’s funeral, Brian startled his grandmother.
“Mommy changed when she started taking OxyContin.
He had gone with his mother on visits to a family doctor and remembered how her back felt much better after she got something the doctor called “oxy.”
Perez, who worked weekend shifts at the oncology unit at Somerset Medical Center, was familiar with OxyContin. She dispensed it herself to end-of-life cancer patients. “I turned to my grandson and said, ‘Mommy didn’t take OxyContin, honey.’ ” Marianne was stunned when the medical examiner’s toxicology report confirmed that Jill had died of respiratory arrest. The cause? Heart failure due to OxyContin.
The death was ruled accidental. “Anyone who is responsible for this is going to be held accountable,” she vowed.
It was time to start digging into what happened to her daughter. She wanted answers as to why the drug she administered to terminally ill cancer patients was prescribed to Jill for back pain. Marianne was no stranger to research. In 1991 she remembers being the top student and president of her graduating nurse class. She had a paralegal certification and had served on the local Community Editorial Board for Gannett’s Courier-News. Her volunteer service at an AIDS support group earned her a Community Service Award in 1992 from a local HIV/AIDS Task Force, and she later wrote several editorials on the subject.
She tracked down a friend of Jill’s who told her that after Jill’s first appointment with her physician, subsequent ones were with the receptionist, who handled the Oxy refills. That prompted Marianne to contact the New Jersey and Pennsylvania medical boards where the physician was licensed. She says that state investigators interviewed her and opened a case.
Meanwhile, she met with lawyers at a Philadelphia-area firm. According to Marianne, they seemed confident there was a wrongful death action for what had happened to Jill. Marianne says they worked for weeks with her on preparing a complaint.
They told her they were about to serve the doctor with their complaint, she says, but a few days later, one of the attorneys called her. They could not proceed. She says he claimed they did “not have the resources for it,” and that Jill’s doctor had followed the standard of care in place at the time.