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 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.


Like this comment
Posted by Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 5, 2012 at 8:36 am

This was a powerful article, worth reading by all parents of teenagers.

Like this comment
Posted by Other Mom
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 5, 2012 at 8:50 am

What an incredibly brave father, and what a sad story. I am humbled that he is telling his story, and so committed to helping others through ACS, which is such a wonderful organization supporting our youth.

Like this comment
Posted by Gavin
a resident of Midtown
on May 5, 2012 at 11:09 am

This is a very sobering account. The take home lesson is that teeneagers, associated with any level of drug abuse, CANNOT be trusted. The adults need to take charge, and not try to be their kids' friends. The parents need to become their jailors, if necessary.

Like this comment
Posted by PA parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 5, 2012 at 2:42 pm

This is an important message to all parents and teenagers!!

Like this comment
Posted by PA Parent
a resident of Midtown
on May 5, 2012 at 3:20 pm

I agree. This is an excellent article that all parents and kids should read.

Thank you, Dr. Ting, for the painfully honest account of what happened to your lovely daughter. These are real stories that our kids, who often think that they are invincible, need to hear. No one is immune to drug addiction.

And thank you for turning your heartbreaking experience into something so beneficial to our community.

Like this comment
Posted by Cindy
a resident of another community
on May 6, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Very powerful! Using the loss of one so beautiful to reach out and help others is a wonderful way to honor Esther! I pray that many will benefit from Esther's pledge.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on May 6, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Amazing father! Thanks for sharing your daughter's story.

Like this comment
Posted by r
a resident of Green Acres
on May 6, 2012 at 11:19 pm

how wonderful that he is using this experience to reach out to others and raise awareness

Like this comment
Posted by Goodjob
a resident of Midtown
on May 7, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Very powerful story. An Asian girl abusing cocaine? Talk about smashing stereotypes. All the more it underscores the fact that it can happen to anybody and we need to be vigilant.

Also, most chinese parents would find it a source of shame to be disclosing such private matters to the public. But Dr. Ting knows that by getting the word out, it can save lives. Much thanks.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe Barber
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 7, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Very sad story. We also lost our daughter 3 years ago to an oxycotin overdose. She had been to treatment centers in the bay area also.
Thank you for speaking out about your daughter. More people need to be talking about the epidemic of teen drug abuse.
Thankfully we sent our son to treatment at 16 and he has been sober for 2 years now.
We sent him to

Like this comment
Posted by Jan A, former co-worker
a resident of Mountain View
on May 12, 2012 at 12:11 pm

George, I have thought of you many times since this happened. I cannot imagine the depth of your loss. I admire you for doing this article to help other parents and young people. It's hard to share publicly what is such private pain. I hope you're finding some peace.

Like this comment
Posted by Laura
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 18, 2013 at 1:37 am

I just recently found out about Esther's tragic passing... I was her driver...picking her up from school and to various lessons..etc. during her 10th- 11th grade year at Kings Acadamy. She was always such a vibrant and sweet young lady. Full of engery and anticipation...looking forward to her college experience. My heart aches at the passing of one so full of future promise. I will treasure the memories of her...little talks on the way to lessons and back home...her taking delight in listening to hip hop very loudly in my car...her engery and bright beautiful smile. Rest in Peace Esther...The angels surround you now. Dr. Ting...I know how very much you loved your Daughter and always wanted the best for her...I believe she's looking down from heaven and smiling at your devotion and perseverance in establishing the wonderful foundation in her name to help others. May God continue to comfort you here on earth until you reunite with your beautiful Daughter in the Heavens. Sincerely, Laura Page

Like this comment
Posted by Most tragic
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 18, 2013 at 8:43 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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