It's estimated one in seven people take it, a performance enhancer that helps students study and helps adults focus. Adderall is used to treat types of Attention Deficit Disorder, commonly referred to as ADD and ADHD.
One mother didn't realize the dangers her son faced taking it until it was too late.
A DeKalb County family had the scare of their lives when their 21-year-old son suffered sudden cardiac arrest. They call it a perfect storm of events that came together and caused the college student to collapse. A main player in this story was his prescription Adderall.
Matthew Henderson enjoys learning. He excelled at academics and sports while attending high school at Lovett, but he always felt something was off.
"I definitely noticed it. I wasn't exactly sure what it was," Henderson said.
After high school graduation, he decided to be tested for ADD. A doctor diagnosed him and prescribed Adderall.
"When I sat down to do work, I had a lot of trouble just staying focused and following details. When I started taking it, it started working pretty well," Henderson said.
His mom, Susan Henderson, supported his decision to take the drug. She wanted Matthew Henderson to continue to do well as he started college.
"At the time I didn't realize it's a black box drug and the side effects are cardiac arrest, seizures, a lot of things I was not aware of," Susan Henderson said.
Soon after Matthew Henderson started taking Adderall, she received a call no mother wants to get.
"The crisis counselor at school said Matthew is in the hospital," Susan Henderson said.
It was October 2010, Henderson was in the Cornell University library studying for a final. He was lacking sleep, just coming off his 21st birthday.
"It was a big test for my major and I just wanted to do well on it. I took an Adderall that morning, then at the library I was thirsty so I grabbed a Red Bull. The next thing I know, I just don't really remember anything after that," Matthew Henderson said.
A student nearby heard Matthew Henderson collapse. Librarians immediately started CPR, literally saving his life.
"We were told he suffered a cardiac arrest. I could not believe it. I dropped to my knees because I just never expected that," Susan Henderson said.
"I feel like that's something I will never truly understand, them being so fearful that I'll never walk again or be able talk or I may not lead a normal life again, so it's definitely scary," Matthew Henderson said.
Dr. Robert Geller, medical toxicologist at Emory, explains taking Adderall and similar drugs are safe as long as taken properly. And just the opposite is true.
"This is not a circumstance where if some is good more is better. This is a circumstance some may be good, more may be worse," Geller said.
Geller said that's especially true when combined with other stimulants, such as caffeine from energy drinks, even soda and coffee.
"We know nationally there is publicity about fatalities from energy drinks alone, we know there are bad outcomes from stimulants alone and we know the mixture can result in bad outcomes," Geller said.
Matthew Henderson stayed in the hospital for 11 days. The first few were spent in a medically induced coma. His first memory is waking up to a UGA game on TV.
Doctors put in a pacemaker, one he may always need.
"I'm very aware of how fast my heart is beating," Matthew Henderson said.
Matthew Henderson still takes Adderall but said he's mindful to only take it when absolutely needed and he's careful of what he puts in his body at the same time.
"I'm sure if I actually thought about it, like Adderall and Red Bull, I probably could've put two and two together and realized it wasn't a good idea, but it's just not something you really think about," Matthew Henderson said.
The experience taught Susan Henderson to always read the fine print and that life can change in the blink of an eye.
"I believe it was a miracle. So many things could have gone wrong and nothing did. It brought our family together. We realized you have to live for the moment because tomorrow's not planned. You never know," Susan Henderson said.
The doctors originally thought Matthew Henderson might not make it. If it was a perfect storm that landed him in the hospital, it was the opposite that helped him survive. Matthew Henderson is healthy and will graduate from Cornell in December.
Copyright 2012 WGCL-TV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.
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