Addicted to pain pills and pregnant, Jen McCormack landed in jail. 21 days later, she was dead.
by Jordan Green
High spirited, loud and full of caustic wit, Jen McCormack commanded the room at a party.
She was the person most likely to be dancing or singing along with Of Montreal at one of LaToya Winslow’s frequent gatherings on South Mendenhall Street near the campus of UNCG in Greensboro.
Jen was the ringleader, the one who made introductions in a circle of open-minded, artistically inclined friends that remains intact to this day, even as its members have graduated and spread afield to Raleigh, Fayetteville and San Francisco. An agnostic who majored in religious and classical studies at UNCG, she was considered among her friends to be the smartest, and the most likely to live an illustrious life.
But at some point, Jen began to go off track. There was an unsuccessful marriage that contrasted painfully with the contented pairings of some of her friends. Jen kept her ex-husband’s last name because she couldn’t afford the legal costs of changing it back. And while she found a new circle of loyal friends among coworkers at the Apple Store in Charlotte, Jen was plagued with health problems, including knees that required surgery. She started abusing prescription pain pills, a habit that began with a legitimate effort at pain management. Through all her ordeals, she still managed to earn a master’s degree in digital libraries from the University of South Carolina.
Jen had found a boyfriend, a guy her friends considered to be kind and supportive, but he left her after he discovered that she lied to him about her opiate habit. In early 2014, she became pregnant through a liaison with different man. Unable to continue at the Apple Store because of her health problems, she moved back to Winston-Salem to live with her mother in the summer of 2014. With her mother’s support, Jen made the decision to keep her baby.
By then, Jen had largely cut off her friends in the old Mendenhall crew. Over the course of several weeks in the late summer Jen resorted calling in fraudulent prescriptions for hydrocodone by impersonating nurses and physician assistants in Winston-Salem and High Point. She was arrested by a Winston-Salem police officer at the Walgreens across from Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem on Aug. 20.
The police report indicates that Jen attempted to hang herself in the bathroom at the pharmacy. As a result, she was taken to Forsyth Medical Center for a mental health evaluation. She also received treatment for her addiction — Suboxone, a relatively new opiate-substitute drug on the US market — during her eight-day stay. Medication-assisted treatment, whether with Suboxone or Methadone, is considering the standard of care for pregnant women struggling with opiate dependence.
The day she was released from Forsyth Medical Center, a Winston-Salem police detective charged Jen with 10 counts of drug fraud and a magistrate signed off on a $25,000 bond — an amount far beyond her family’s means that ensured she wouldn’t make bail.
In 21 days Jen would be dead.
Here’s where I make a personal admission.
I knew Jen well enough to call her a friend. But looking back, I didn’t come through as a friend when she most needed one. And to be honest, we were never especially close.
I came into the Mendenhall circle in early 2008, shortly after meeting my future wife, which was also around the same time Jen was moving to Charlotte. We saw each other at parties and weddings, but I don’t particularly remember any personal conversations that would have allowed us to really get to know one another.
Over the past seven years, my wife and I have grown increasingly close with LaToya, and Sarah, along with her husband Adam. We named LaToya the godmother of our daughter, who was born in 2013. All that is to say that, not knowing Jen very well, her death registered with me primarily as sadness for LaToya and Sarah, along with my wife.
Jen’s arrest “made the news,” to use an unsentimental phrase common among those who don’t necessarily appreciate media attention. The hideous booking photograph and story ripped straight from the police press release in the Winston-Salem Journal rattled me, although I too have recycled plenty of press releases about low-level offenders, often adding a dose of mockery and belittlement. Now I know how it feels to be on the other side.
When my wife told me that Jen had died, I felt shock and sadness, but I was preoccupied with family and professional matters. And if I thought Jen’s death was newsworthy at all, I’m sure I concluded that my personal connection to her ruled me out as the reporter for the assignment. I wanted to move on as quickly as possible.
It took writing about addiction four months later for me to realize that I had a personal connection to a story as harrowing, sad and unjust as any I had covered as a reporter. After all, here was a woman with an unborn child who had suffered an apparent heart attack in jail, and later died as a result of it. Considering my personal entanglements, I felt that I needed permission from Jen’s closest friends to write the story. They agreed that it was important to hold the jail accountable, but wanted to make sure it was alright with Janis McCormack, Jen’s mother. Janis eventually gave her blessing.
Was Jen’s death avoidable? What might have been done to protect her? Where exactly did the system fail her? Have we as a society abandoned the most vulnerable of our citizens and failed to allocate adequate resources to ensure their protection?
These are questions that need to be asked on behalf of any friend — or, for that matter, any stranger.
If we don’t care what happened to Jen, maybe that means we don’t care that much about our own health and safety. Do we want a healthcare system in our jail that truly protects people, or should we just hope for the best and accept that the worst is in the realm of possibility if we or someone we love ends up there?