Lessons from a tragedy
Father who lost child to addiction says others can follow different path
Looking back on his daughter's short life, George Ting sees many turning points where things might have been different.
A judge's interim custody decision. His own failure to grasp fully the gravity of his daughter's drug addiction. The choice of a treatment program. The code of silence among friends.
Though he mulls the myriad factors over and over again in his head, the outcome that he cannot change is that Esther Ting died at Stanford University Hospital on April 13, 2009 — just short of her 19th birthday — from severe brain injury triggered by cocaine in her blood.
From that horrific experience, the Los Altos physician wants the world to understand that things could have been different — and can be different in the future for other teen addicts, if parents and friends know what to do.
He aims to spread the word through Esther's Pledge, an expanded drug-education program established at the Palo Alto nonprofit Adolescent Counseling Services.
Beginning this month, Esther's Pledge will offer free monthly workshops — one for young adults 15 to 21 and another for 10- to 14-year-old youths and their parents — covering warnings signs of addiction and how to get help.
Adolescent Counseling Services also has launched a confidential hotline, available Monday through Friday from 5 to 7 p.m., staffed by professional drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment counselors.
"Esther died in spite of the efforts of a significant group of people who loved her very much," said Elizabeth Schar, a friend of Ting and board member of ACS, who helped establish the program.
"The purpose of Esther's Pledge is our commitment from those who loved Esther to make sure the friends and adults in young people's lives recognize what a battle addiction is and know what to do."
Ting well understood that his daughter carried scars from prolonged court battles — including two trials — over her custody when she was a toddler, eventually resulting in full custody for Ting.
But she was a playful and spirited child, who loved to read, bake cookies and hike at Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills. She attended Pinewood Elementary School, played on the swim and tennis teams at The Kings Academy middle school and high school, and later transferred to Mountain View High School, from which she graduated in 2008.
She learned to speak Japanese through annual family trips to Tokyo, where they visited her paternal grandmother.
Ting said he was unaware that his daughter was abusing drugs when she departed for her freshman year at Northeastern University in Boston.
She came home that fall for Thanksgiving and again for Christmas, before returning to school. In mid-January, he got a call from a university dorm adviser that Esther had been taken to a hospital emergency room.
He reached her at the hospital by phone.
"I thought she was smoking pot or something like that. She said no, she'd been busted for cocaine, that she'd been using it intravenously. I was just flabbergasted.
"That was inconceivable to me because ever since she was 8 or 9 we'd always talked about how bad drugs are, how once you're hooked you're hooked and don't follow that path."
Ting flew to Boston the next day and found his daughter in a locked psychiatric ward.
"I said, 'How did you ever cross the line into using anything intravenously — how did you take that first step?' She didn't have a good answer."
So began a confusing, three-month journey back in the Bay Area, through drug rehabilitation programs.
Though first slated for a locked, residential treatment facility, Esther persuaded her father that living with nobody but hard-core addicts for a long period was not the best course. Instead, they chose a "sober living environment," in which residents are regularly subjected to drug testing.
In that period, Ting now believes, he failed to grasp fully the depth of his daughter's addiction.
"If your child becomes an addict, all the old rules are off," he says now.
"You can't think you're going to show them respect, or respect their privacy or their word — none of that applies any more. You have to assume they're lying through their teeth, because that's what an addict will do.
"It was a steep learning curve, and I was always one step behind, giving her the benefit of the doubt."
Ting said he participated in Esther's drug-counseling sessions and was seeing her several times a week either at home or in restaurants, where they would meet for lunch or dinner. He helped her settle into her first "sober living environment," but she left that one and told him she was moving to another, where she was seeing therapists and being monitored and drug-tested on a regular basis.
Father and daughter met for lunch at Ming's April 5, 2009. Three days later he got a call from a Four Seasons Hotel security officer who told him Esther had been taken from the hotel to Stanford Hospital.
Ting found her on a ventilator, with irreversible brain damage, and eventually learned that she'd never moved to the new "sober living environment" but spent her final weeks in a hotel with a fellow addict.
"I made assumptions that were wrong," he said.
"I should have been her jailer. When your child is addicted they can't help themselves, and you have to keep them from harm because they can't do it."
As friends gathered at her bedside in the Intensive Care Unit, and later at her funeral, Ting also realized that many had known of Esther's drug abuse going back to high school but did not know how to act to save her.
"I learned a lot of things when she was in the hospital at Stanford," he said.
Schar and her husband were among the many who attended Esther's funeral. "We saw how greatly she had been loved, how helpless everyone felt that this beautiful child was now gone," she said.
"We felt we had to do something to address this."
Esther's Pledge workshops will be available for young adults 15 to 21 on the first Thursday of every month from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Workshops for youths 10 to 14, and their parents, are offered monthly on the third Thursday from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
The gatherings will be at the Adolescent Counseling Services offices, 1717 Embarcadero Road, Suite 4000, Palo Alto. Reserve by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 650-424-0852 ext. 200.
The number for the Substance Abuse Information Line, available Monday through Friday from 5 to 7 p.m., is 650-384-3094.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at email@example.com.