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REFLECTIONS ON THE EFFICACY OF OPIOID PAIN RELIEF OVER TIME

pain photoBefore addressing the issues of this article, I will need to explain the position from which I write. At the present time I am a 76-year old, semi-retired sociologist and former nurse. As a sociologist, it was natural for me to include the sociology of medicine as one of my major interests. As a nurse, I worked for three years in the county jail nurse’s office, several years in the emergency room, and for six years as a hospital corpsman in the navy reserve.

I was introduced to the whole drug scene while working in the jail, where it was my job to treat substance abusers who were addicted to paint, glue, alcohol, and various drugs. This was in the very early ‘80s, and the majority of the street drugs were amphetamines, Quaaludes, heroin, and marijuana. It was necessary to control withdrawal symptoms from the time the inmates were booked, to keep them alive long enough to go to court, serve whatever time they were given, and be released back into the same environment with virtually no change in their lives except those imposed on felons. The recidivism rate was extremely high—more so than for any other offense. During the time I worked there, the fastest turn-around rate for a released prisoner being picked up drunk and brought back in to Booking was 30 minutes.

Of course, in the ER and even in the Navy reserve I saw evidence of substance abuse. As a corpsman I was also involved with both diagnosis and treatment. The most heartbreaking experiences, however, occurred while I was working at a private college in Appalachia from 1997-2013. I saw firsthand the growth of the OxyContin and heroin epidemic that Sam Quinones documents in Dreamland, followed by Meth and various other prescription drugs, soon followed by the amoral pill mills that so delighted students who were already dependent or in early stages of addiction. At their age, they were the most vulnerable to the brain disorder of addiction, and the main targets of the dealers who would actually supply their first pills free, to encourage a new customer. I saw so many beautiful, bright students succumb to the promise of a pill that would make their life better, more fun, or at least easier. I was able to help some, but not all, by far. They needed experienced and trained medical attention, and I was no longer in that field. I came to despise the very thought of drugs, dealers, and pill mill “doctors”.

But there is another side to my story. In 1968 I suffered the first experience of a bulging spinal disc. Within 3 years I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, and with osteoarthritis of the spine, hands, feet, shoulders and hips. By 2013, there was no part of my spine that was not affected; I had major stenosis at various levels, bone spurs, episodes of bulging and decayed discs, a vertebra that had decayed discs on both sides and was standing on edge, resulting in a spinal S-curve from my waist to the upper thoracic region. Unrelenting pain caused muscle spasms in my entire back and neck, adding to the pain. A meningioma would soon be discovered attached to my spinal cord at T3-4; it is benign—the only worry being that it will grow.

During those 45 years living with pain, I never had any medication stronger than NSAIDS. Like many patients, I could not tolerate narcotics or opioids. I had to learn meditation and “mind control” (pushing the awareness of pain to another part of my consciousness). I had a great deal of physical therapy. I played the piano and organ for distraction, until I could not. I walked from 1-3 miles every day, and I worked full time as a nurse, then as a college professor, usually working between 40-60 hours a week. I spent seven years in South Africa in the middle of a revolution. The more I could distract myself with external demands, the longer I could function. Again, until I could not.

In 2014, so disabled by pain I could neither work nor sufficiently care for myself, I was sent to a pain management specialist in Louisville, KY. After I was finally convinced that he was a legitimate pain specialist who would not try to get me addicted, we were able to work together very well. I learned to trust his judgement, and to follow his lead in determining my treatment.   As a result, I have been able to teach at a local university part time for the last two years, and it has been a year since I have had pain greater than 5 on the 0-10 scale. One of the reasons that the pain has not been greater, and has not persisted, is that when it gets to that point I take hydrocodone, at its very lowest dose. My pain doctor realized that I am able to tolerate very low doses of medications for other problems (many of which were caused or exacerbated by long-term use of NSAIDS), so we tried the opiate. The complete pain relief has been astounding to me. I have never before had medication do more than take the edge off the pain. Equally important, my need for the opiate is becoming less and less frequent. My chronic anxiety levels have dropped considerably, and that also is a source of pain relief.

Which brings me, finally, to the point of this article. I hope I have sufficiently established the experience and credentials that give me the foundation for writing it. I must write it, because for too long I have been reading articles by people who have based their judgement about the dangers and/or efficacy of opiate treatment for pain on short-term, inadequate research. In A World of Hurt, by Barry Meier, he quotes Dr. Jayne Ballantyne as saying that her studies, and those of others, show that after a short term of therapy, there is little to no efficacy (5% of patients) of opiates for pain. I have seen and heard these figures often; yet pain management physicians also have records of people who have been carefully managed on opiates and other pain relieving measures for at least twenty years, who are functioning without severe pain. None of these studies satisfy me that they meet the natural science or sociological requirements of longitudinal studies. The former studies fall far short of twenty years, and the latter are a matter of record but no sufficiently rigorous scientific research has been done to establish credibility.

Additionally, our understanding of the prevalence and range of chronic pain issues, and the new brain studies that have completely revised our knowledge of addiction, have rendered those studies irrelevant. But the continued widespread references to them has created a situation that is clearly morally and ethically bankrupt: Patients with persistent, severe pain—including, in many states, terminal cancer patients—are being deliberately, systematically deprived of relief and therefore from the ability to lead potentially productive lives, or at least to spend their final days in peace, without pain. This, while other substances that are addictive are legal and can be consumed by any adult, regardless of their risk factors for addiction, whether or not there is a “need” for the substance.

What would make opiate efficacy studies reliable and verifiable? First, to acknowledge that all pain patients are unique in their tolerance to pain, their response to pain, and their response to treatment. Not everyone can metabolize medications the same way. Not everyone responds equally to physical therapy, or to psychological counselling. Not everyone has the personality to effectively meditate, or to suppress awareness of moderate pain. But all of these treatments, as well as known risk factors, are variables that must be accounted for if you are judging the efficacy of pain treatment.

Then there is the issue of the selection of participants. When I read the studies done in past years, I found they were limited to a single practice, or a hospital, or other small group of patients with no concern for variables like age, risk factors, history of abuse, previous treatment and other illnesses. The participants were not chosen scientifically in order to be representative, so results are inevitably skewed. I am reminded of early anthropological ethnographic studies where small, isolated villages were researched, then the results extrapolated to all such groups: “from the particular to the general”. We now realize that you can’t do this and arrive at accurate conclusions. Yet, on the basis of these flawed opiate efficacy studies, people’s lives are being damaged, their families are suffering needlessly, and many patients who are cut off from their medication either take to street drugs with the risk of overdose, or just commit suicide in the first place.

We do need more research about the safety and efficacy of drugs. But it must be longitudinal and scientifically designed and the results assessed to be reliable and verifiable. We also need politicians to stop enacting laws and policies based on moral definitions of issues, which we can never come to consensus about, and work on the actual economic and environmental issues that they can actually improve.

Addiction is a disease, not a moral issue. Pain is a disease, not a moral issue. And we are not speaking of just a few people affected by the neglect resulting from ill-informed laws and regulations designed more to punish the innocent along with the guilty rather than to end the War on Drugs. We speak of hundreds of thousands, even millions of sufferers. When properly identified as scientific (medical) problems instead of moral issues, we can see the potential to improve conditions. People could be adding to the economy, rather than being forced to either live off of it, or to live in poverty while their pain continues to worsen.

Big Pharma—for example, Purdue Pharma– are far from innocent in this War. Additionally, the FDA is no longer as concerned with protecting potential patients as they are in protecting corporate rights to profit; witness the countless lawsuits for drugs improperly researched, improperly advertised, and improperly presented to physicians who must rely on that information in order to prescribe successfully. And the DEA is still, regardless of evidence that they are often destroying the lives of the innocent while failing to halt the spread of illegal drugs, using pain patients and their physicians as cannon fodder in their failed war on drugs.

A significant paradigm shift is required here. Educationally, culturally, legally and morally we must illuminate the darkness of our willful ignorance about the suffering of the innocent who have become scapegoats in the failed War on Drugs due to tunnel vision about the relationships between drugs, physicians, and pain; a tunnel vision that cannot see the greed and political will that perpetuates the drug problem. Every institution of our society has failed our physicians and their patients who are in pain, or addicted. Those institutions have either failed to adjust a false worldview that blames patients for their illnesses, or have just failed to assume responsibility for their role in finding solutions to the need for a collaborative approach to these widespread diseases, and to the devastation that has resulted from long term beliefs that they are moral issues that must be punished.

For over a century, that approach has not worked. And as the saying goes, insanity is defined as continuing to do the same thing over and over again (or doing even more of it), expecting different results. From family, to education, to religion, culture, economics and government we need a major overhaul of outdated and inaccurate beliefs, and development of procedures that decriminalize the treatment of chronic pain and addiction, as well as the afflictions themselves. Medical decisions need to be made by medical experts and their appropriate medical agencies, and the Criminal Justice system could concentrate on ridding our nation of illegal drugs by putting the same time and effort into stopping the dealers who daily increase the supply of drugs available on our streets. We might even look to the successes of other countries, and determine if their methods are importable.

I cannot bear the thought of more bright and beautiful college students ruining or ending their lives before they have even begun. The data suggests that it is not stopping with college students, but that high school and even middle school students are being targeted as “customers” of the illegal drug trade. I also cannot live with the knowledge that caring and dedicated physicians, who have spent nearly half of an average 70 year lifetime studying and working for the privilege of becoming practicing physicians, have lost everything they have worked for because they have tried to help their patients. (I am quite ok with pill mill “doctors” being brought to justice for their crimes, however!)

It is Christmas Eve as I write this. A time of hope, a time of expectation that the promises of life can be fulfilled. I am a sociologist because I believe in the amazing capability of human beings to solve the problems of life, separately and together. I am also all too well aware of our capability to create and maintain cultural and social institutions and structures that protect certain groups of humans at the expense of huge numbers of their fellow humans. I believe that most of us are better than this; that we can do better, and that bit by bit we can learn to adapt to change, to each other, and to the requirements of living in our world safely, together.

Please—let’s make 2017 the year we begin to deal with chronic pain and addiction as the disease processes they are, and begin to structure our corporate life accordingly, so that together we can end the war on drugs, and on patients and their physicians, and restore the rationality of the Enlightenment without killing the compassion of empathy.

enlifghtened being

RESOURCES: Books & Peer Reviewed Articles

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. 2012. The New Press, NY

Bateman, Dustin. Neurological & Sociological Aspects of Addiction.

Bertram, Eva and Morrris Blachman. Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial. 1996. University of California Press.

Levinthal, Charles F. Messengers of Paradise. Opiates and the Brain. The Struggle Over Pain, Rage, Uncertainty and Addiction.

Meier, Barry. A World of Hurt: Fixing Pain Medicine’s Biggest Mistake. 2013. New York Times Company.

Parsons, Talcott. “Illness and the Role of the Physician: A Sociological Perspective.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 24 March 2010. Copyright © 2010, John Wiley and Sons.

Quinones, Sam. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. 2015. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Sternheimer, Karen. Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture:   Why Media is not the Answer.  2nd Ed. 2013. Westview Press, Perseus Books Group.

Webster, Lynn R. The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain is Really Like and Why it Matters to Each of Us.  2015  Webster Media, LLC.

Hyperlinks to articles on Web:

Addiction is a Brain Disease http://www.attcnetwork.org/explore/priorityareas/science/disease/

Pain Medicine News – How Did We Get Here? http://www.painmedicinenews.com/ViewArticle.aspx?d=Guest%2BEditorial&d_id=351&i=March+2014&i_id=1042&a_id=26043&tab=MostEmailed#.U3PLVV6vdyI.twitter 

Report: Chronic, Undertreated Pain Affects 116 Million Americans http://ti.me/AAfT7q  via @TIMEHealth

New Pain Management Rules Leave Patients Hurting http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2016035307_pain28m.html#.U2mA77bwJzQ.twitter 

Chronic Undertreated pain affects 116 million Americans: http://healthland.time.com/2011/06/29/report-chronic-undertreated-pain-affects-116-million-americans/

Our Fear of Opioids Leaves the world in Pain http://edsinfo.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/our-fear-of-opioids-leaves-the-world-in-pain/

MT @toni_bernhard: My new piece. It should be of interest to anyone whose illness is questioned: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/turning-straw-gold/201410/i-m-sick-what-is-wrong-me …Dr. Paul Christo @DrPaulChristo  ·  Oct 27

California Doctor….   http://paindr.com/california-doctor-unveils-painful-abyss-facing-patients-in-pain/

Physician Suicide http://t.co/4vhF63eD6N

References from this article:

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  2. Adams D. Physician suicide: searching for answers. American Medical News [serial online]. April 25, 2005;Available at http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2005/04/25/prsa0425.htm.
  3. Center C, Davis M, Detre T, et al. Confronting depression and suicide in physicians: a consensus statement. JAMA. Jun 18 2003;289(23):3161-6. [Medline].
  4. Hawton K, Malmberg A, Simkin S. Suicide in doctors. A psychological autopsy study. J Psychosom Res. Jul 2004;57(1):1-4. [Medline].
  5. Holmes VF, Rich CL. Suicide Among Physicians. In: Blumenthal SJ, Kupfer DJ, eds. Suicide Over the Life Cycle. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press; 2004:599-618.
  6. Middleton JL. Today I’m grieving a physician suicide. Ann Fam Med. May-Jun 2008;6(3):267-9. [Medline].
  7. Noonan D. Doctors who kill themselves. Newsweek. Apr 28 2008;151(17):16. [Medline].
  8. Petersen MR, Burnett CA. The suicide mortality of working physicians and dentists. Occup Med (Lond). Jan 2008;58(1):25-9. [Medline]. [Full Text].
  9. Worley LL. Our fallen peers: a mandate for change. Acad Psychiatry. Jan-Feb 2008;32(1):8-12. [Medline].
  10. Frank E, Dingle AD. Self-reported depression and suicide attempts among U.S. women physicians. Am J Psychiatry. Dec 1999;156(12):1887-94. [Medline].
  11. Schernhammer ES, Colditz GA. Suicide rates among physicians: a quantitative and gender assessment (meta-analysis). Am J Psychiatry. Dec 2004;161(12):2295-302. [Medline].
  12. Gross CP, Mead LA, Ford DE, et al. Physician, heal thyself? Regular source of care and use of preventive health services among physicians. Arch Intern Med. Nov 27 2000;160(21):3209-14. [Medline].
  13. Myers M, Fine C. Suicide in physicians: toward prevention. MedGenMed. Oct 21 2003;5(4):11. [Medline].
  14. Myers M. Doctors’ Marriages: A Look at the Problems and Their Solutions. 2nd ed. New York: Springer; 1994.
  15. Charles SC, Frisch PR. Adverse Events, Stress, and Litigation: A Physician’s Guide. New York: Oxford University Press; 2005.
  16. Balch CM, Oreskovich MR, Dyrbye LN, et al. Personal consequences of malpractice lawsuits on American surgeons. J Am Coll Surg. Nov 2011;213(5):657-67. [Medline].
  17. Sessions S. Dr. Ticktin and the Expert Witness Industry. 2005;[Full Text].
  18. Myers M, Gabbard G. The Physician as Patient: A Clinical Handbook for Mental Health Professionals. American Psychiatric Publishing; 2008.
  19. Lehmann C. Aggressive Intervention Urged for Depression in Physicians. Psychiatric News. November 17, 2000.
  20. Miles SH. A piece of my mind. A challenge to licensing boards: the stigma of mental illness. JAMA. Sep 9 1998;280(10):865. [Medline].
  21. Hendin H, Maltsberger JT, Haas AP. A physician’s suicide. Am J Psychiatry. Dec 2003;160(12):2094-7. [Medline].
  22. Hendin H, Reynolds C, Fox D, et al. Licensing and Physician Mental Health: Problems and Possibilities. Journal of Medical Licensure and Discipline. 2007;93:6-11.
  23. Schwenk TL, Gorenflo DW, Leja LM. A survey on the impact of being depressed on the professional status and mental health care of physicians. J Clin Psychiatry. Apr 2008;69(4):617-20. [Medline].
  24. Polfliet SR. A National Analysis of Medical Licensure Applications. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2008;36:369-74. [Full Text].
  25. Altchuler SI. Commentary: Granting medical licensure, honoring the Americans with disabilities act, and protecting the public: can we do all three?. Acad Med. Jun 2009;84(6):689-91. [Medline]. [Full Text].
  26. Schroeder R, Brazeau CM, Zackin F, Rovi S, Dickey J, Johnson MS, et al. Do state medical board applications violate the Americans With Disabilities Act?. Acad Med. Jun 2009;84(6):776-81. [Medline]. [Full Text].
  27. Andrew LB. Survey Says: Many EPs Suffer in Silence. Emergency Physicians Monthly Online [serial online]. March 2006;13:3:1-7. Available at http://www.epmonthly.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=226&Itemid=15.
  28. Shaw DL, Wedding D, Zeldow PB. Suicide among medical students and physicians, special problems of medical students. In: Wedding D, ed. Behavior and Medicine. 3rd ed. Hogrefe and Huber: 2001:78-9 (chap 6).
  29. Fahrenkopf AM, Sectish TC, Barger LK, et al. Rates of medication errors among depressed and burnt out residents: prospective cohort study. BMJ. Mar 1 2008;336(7642):488-91. [Medline]. [Full Text].
  30. West CP, Tan AD, Habermann TM, Sloan JA, Shanafelt TD. Association of resident fatigue and distress with perceived medical errors. JAMA. Sep 23 2009;302(12):1294-300. [Medline].
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  32. Moutier C, Norcross W, Jong P, et al. The Suicide Prevention and Depression Awareness Program at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. Acad Med. Mar 2012;87(3):320-6. [Medline].
  33. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Physician Depression and Suicide Prevention Project. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Available at http://www.afsp.org/index.cfm?page_id=05804002-E8F4-13AB-2D4B97A0815A2744. Accessed 10 March 2010.
  34. Goldsmith SK, Pellmar TC, Kleinman AM. Reducing Suicide: A National Imperative. Institute of Medicine Monograph. National Academies Press; 2002:[Full Text].
  35. Andrew LB. PHPs Are in Your Corner. Emergency Physician Monthly Online. 2006;13:6:[Full Text].

Physician Risks

The damage done by the war on opioids: the pendulum has swung too far http://www.dovepress.com/articles.php?article_id=16781 …

Trial Verdict: Dr. Baldi Not Guilty on All Charges http://whotv.com/2014/05/01/baldi-trial-not-guilty-on-all-charges/

What are Patients to do when Law Enforcement Closes Clinics? http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/ravalli-county-health-officer-says-patients-of-raided-florence-clinic/article_cf2e1690-bac0-11e3-848e-001a4bcf887a.html

Killing Pain in Perry county http://www.kentucky.com/2009/12/12/1056711/killing-pain-in-perry-co.html

Patient role in helping physicians

“Unless patients wake up and fight for the providers of care, we are headed for the sickest system in the world.” http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2014/03/dissatisfied-doctors-provide-good-patient-care.html …

 

dr-murphyFrom James P. Murphy, MD, MMM;

Practicing Pain Management Physician

Board Certified in Pain Management & Addiction Management

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2014/04/25/the-dream-of-pain-care-enough-to-cope-the-seventeenth-r-dietz-wolfe-memorial-lecture/

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2016/07/24/comparing-apples-to-apples-the-morphine-equivalent-daily-dose/

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2016/06/21/prescribing-controlled-substances-in-kentucky-cme-presentation-for-flaget-memorial-hospital-in-bardstown-ky-june-21-2016/

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2015/02/13/pathway-to-partnership/

https://jamespmurphymd.com/2015/09/a-stellar-time-at-bellarmine

 


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THE PROBLEM OF PAIN

In his 1940 publication The Problem of Pain[i], C. S. Lewis includes the following paragraph:

The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends…..have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

While it is apparent that Lewis was writing primarily about the emotional pain and grief that we experience in life, he was also a chronic pain sufferer. For the majority of today’s chronic pain patients—including myself—the pain waxes and wanes, sometimes giving us a day or more of blessed freedom from pain, at other times causing us to simply curl up in bed and pray for the pain to go away. For those who are able to find the strength to live and be productive despite the pain, many are able to do so because they have been given sufficient moral support, alternative treatments, and pain medications that take the edge off the pain for a time.

It is so much easier to see those bright moments, those “pleasant inns” when everything is working and life is free of pain—whether physical, emotional, or psychological. We are able to enjoy the company of friends; to appreciate the beauty of a flock of geese in flight; to simply breathe in the pleasure of living. The future seems brighter, laughter comes easily, and one feels at home in the world again.

But even as Lewis warns that this happiness is not “home,” our own nature is to begin to fear the return of the pain; to want to do anything possible to ward off having to cope in the loneliness of being that is centered wholly on dealing with that enormous threat to well-being. To long for the freedom from this life-robbing, happiness-destroying monstrous condition that plagues our days and our nights.

We would do anything, give anything, to return to the easier state of merely coping, when all the treatments and medications make life at least possible, and occasionally happy. We begin to fear the return of pain so much that at the slightest threat of pain, we return to the medication that gives us relief and hope; we do this with our physician’s blessings so long as we do not abuse the prescribed rules of when, and how much, to use.

This is actually rational: to relieve the pain before it takes over the mind and body just makes sense, and prevents much worse episodes of pain with devastating effects on the physical and mental condition of the patient. To lengthen the periods of less pain and shorten the periods of intense pain is the goal of pain management for most patients.

However, that goal has been usurped and denied by federal and state governments who want us to believe that the War on Drugs is best served by taking pain relieving medications from the people who need it most, in order to punish the people who sell illegal drugs and those who abuse legal or illegal drugs. We are not impressed with this kind of logic.

A couple of weeks ago, as I entered the waiting area of my pharmacy, the only other occupant spoke up once I was settled in and inquired if I noticed how cold it was in the building. I noted that he appeared to be my age or younger, was very thin, wearing a light jacket on a typical hot day in this region. I replied that I had just come from an air conditioned car, so had not noticed the temperature in the building yet. He went on to tell me that he was a cancer patient, and that two years previously he was told he would probably not live more than two years.

In the past three months he had lost 60 pounds. He was not allowed to have his opioid pain medication anymore because he had two alternative pain medications, which were no longer helping him.  He went on about his wife who was also very ill, and how difficult it was to take care of himself and his wife with no help. Suddenly he bent over, head in his hands, and began to sob. “I just wish that someone would put me out of my misery,” he almost whispered.

I moved over to the seat next to him and began to gently rub his shoulders (with his permission). I didn’t talk, because I was too overwhelmed with anger and pain for this man’s unnecessary suffering.The changes in the opioid regulations are egregious enough when applied to pain patients, but since when were cancer patients no longer exempt from this kind of torture? 

I listened to him, and was sorely tempted to give him my pain medication—but that would not help anyone and could potentially do great harm. So I seethed with frustration at my inability to do anything to ease his pain, and recalled the days in the not so distant past when I suffered those same feelings, when I was unable to take medication for the chronic pain that had finally become unbearable and disabling. (My subsequent encounter with a pain management specialist, resulting in my return to the “real” world, has been written elsewhere on this site).

Eventually his tears ceased, and he was notified that his meds were ready to pick up. He left, and I was alone with my anger, and my guilt for no longer suffering as this stranger suffered. Probably, I had never suffered to the extent that he suffered, because pain is not the same for every patient, nor is it relieved in the same way for every patient. Plus, I only had myself to care for, without the additional pain of needing to care for a loved one.

I swung between the longing to run out of the pharmacy and shout my anger and frustration to the world, and the dark experience of powerlessness in the face of known legislative deafness and blindness.  In such a dark mood, I had no expectation of experiencing the opportunity for a pleasant, albeit brief, stay in one of Lewis’ “pleasant inns.” In truth, I probably would have snarled at anyone who suggested that I look for the brighter side of life.

Of course, the next day I was back at the university, teaching my classes and reveling in the sheer pleasure of the gift of returned productivity that allowed me to enjoy this beloved activity. As time went by, I was reminded that this joy was a mere stop in the road trip of my life; I would not be able to continue doing it for many years, or even months, more.

I thanked God for the reminder that I could not stay in this happy, even joyful state forever. There are still battles over injustices in our world that must be dealt with, and times of personal pain and darkness. They are just as necessary as the joyful times, if we are to be responsible, productive citizens of our world.  May we not forget to appreciate the precious times of joy because of the problem of pain. Nor let us forget the needs of the oppressed and suffering while we rest in “pleasant inns.”

 [i] Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain 1940 Centenary Press, London

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COLLEGE STUDENTS GIVE MY LIFE MEANING

bare tree

The university academic year begins for me this week, and—not for the first time—my thoughts are heavy with the implications of the grave responsibility of educating the young. This year, though, seems to weigh heavy on my heart more than any such year in the past, with the possible exception of the years in South Africa during the end of apartheid and the first years of democracy. It could even be because of those years, and the comparisons that can be made between South Africa then, and the United States now, that my concern is great.

Of course, no comparative study would find a perfect correlation between the two countries. But there are many similarities, especially when observing the issues of race, intolerance, social injustice, disenfranchisement, rule of a power elite—I could go on, but already it become obvious that there are points to be made, as well as huge differences in the two situations. Can anything be learned from the past in another country, that would shed light on a way forward for us in the present?

My course load this semester consists of Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Social Theory, and Political Anthropology. All three courses contain a great deal of material that directly relates to August 2016 in the United States. Some of these situations, like the failed war on drugs and its ongoing, devastating aftermath, do not appear to be related to anything that occurred in South Africa. But when you look deeper at the combinations of political misinformation, low intensity violence incited deliberately by the government, and antipathy between police and the often innocent subjects of their brutality, a shared trend appears.

In fact, one can see that the troubles in both nations were not caused by failed societal structures so much as by a shared failed personal accountability for human actions. I always try to find an opportunity to explain to my students why it is true that to the extent we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. And the more often that we do that, the less human we become. At some point, it no longer matters who we hurt, or how much we hurt them. Having reached that point, nothing is sacred—we can lie to each other, cheat in personal and public relationships, and shame our religious traditions by turning them inside out and using them against each other, rather than in enjoyment of the sacredness of our existence. Some people blame this on the capitalist profit motive; I blame it on unrestrained greed grown to inhumane size, however you want to rationalize it.

Our inhumane behavior is seen in social media pages, day after day. Many posts are deliberate lies, some are propagated by people and organizations who make a great deal of money developing the ways and means of destroying political opponents, or spreading ideas in order to challenge inconvenient truths about how we should live. Our youth often do not trust our government, our news media, or our religious leaders. We have an entire generation of youth who have grown up in the midst of uncontrolled verbal and media bile, day after day. Yet many parents and teachers are still able to reflect the values of integrity and community to their children; too many others have failed.

I don’t want to be one of those who fail those precious young people. It would be safe for me to just present the information in the texts as is, and avoid controversy. Unfortunately, sociology and anthropology are not calculus. They exist to provide a learning situation whereby we may study, compare, theorize, and determine the state of our world, and consider possible ways to improve our situation and that of others. If we learn anything at all from these disciplines, it is that humans are not meant to live just for themselves. We are psychologically and mentally geared to living in community, from whence we learn our sameness as well as our beautiful uniqueness; where we learn to share, to care for others, and to be cared for. It is where we discover the meaning of our lives, as Victor Frankl explains so beautifully.

On the surface, our country is in what Durkheim would call a state of anomie; of “normlessness.” There are too many who live by disregarding the norms of human interactions, of human responsibility. The rest of us are not free of responsibility for this state of affairs. The rapidity of progress has allowed us all to enjoy an unprecedented mobility, separation from family and old friends, from the norms that defined our lives when we were young people. The sense of normlessness that has grown has produced political and religious apathy, as our values as a nation have withered into weapons for some groups to hurl at others in hatred.

It could appear that all is lost. It is not. We can, and must, regain our humanity by treating others as the precious human beings they were meant to be. We cannot separate ourselves from community, especially from communities of meaning. We can look to the examples of those around us who are good people, who live honestly and compassionately. We can seek justice for those whose lives have been broken by injustice.

…..We can demand from our government leaders the same values that we hold for ourselves, and make sure not to repeat errors in judgement on that score.

….. We can bring family life back into vogue, securing the early years of our children with the nuts and bolts of honesty, responsibility, and community.

….. We can demand improvements in our education systems so that our children learn to think, not just to memorize.

And we can treat the people we run into each and every day as though they were human beings like ourselves: imperfect, yet full of potential; sacred to their Creator and therefore sacred to ourselves. Deserving of respect—enough so as to inspire those who have none for themselves to strive for improvement.

 

……Yes, this is indeed a heavy responsibility to owe to the students in my classroom. But why else would I even want to be there? The intergenerational discussions and learning that will take place give my life meaning. My students, who are also my teachers, are the joy of my life. When I meet with them again, that “heavy responsibility” will be rediscovered as a great privilege. So begins another year.

classroom


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‘TIS THE SEASON……..

little Who

 

It is once again the Christmas season—or Advent, to be accurate at the moment—and although I have avoided posting to this blog for some time now I would really love to write something relevant. But my inner voice asks: Relevant to whom?

Those for whom the pressing problem of the season is a warm place to sleep, and some food to quiet an empty stomach? They are certainly one of the reasons for the arrival of this Baby in a Manger.

The ever-increasing number of elderly orphans, especially those who lack financial resources for life necessities and medications, and who will be alone at Christmas? Yes, of course.

Refugees all over the world who have been driven from their homes, and separated from loved ones, because of hate, discrimination and war? Definitely.

Those who have been marginalized and discriminated against by institutionalized bigotry, white privilege, and the insidious lie of “color-blindness” until their frustration is at the breaking point? These, as well.

Unfortunately, I could go on and on. The list of ways in which humans deny or ignore the image of their Creator in each other is endless, sometimes almost evilly ingenious.

Perhaps, then, I could attempt to put a Christmas face on the debacle of our political system and the present electoral campaign? Frankly, this is much more difficult for me. I find it much easier to feel the Christmas spirit for those neglected and in need than for those who contribute on a daily basis to that sad situation.

Of course, as a social scientist I could write pages enumerating the evils of the system, with empirical evidence and professional objectivity. But this is not a professional research paper, and in truth I am far from objective about this subject. In fact, I am disillusioned, angry, humiliated, and absolutely broken-hearted that my country has become this spectacle of greed, ignorance, sociopathology, hatred, bigotry and downright evil.

That, of course, is primarily those who wish to be elected to public office, and whose desperate antics I have the misfortune to see every time I turn on my TV or my computer. But in the Real World, the vast majority of Americans are still the good, honest, hardworking and caring people that the average American has always been. Including—perhaps even more so—the average immigrants, present and past. Our ancestors. Those good people upon whose backs this country was built. (Ahh-did I hear the National Anthem playing somewhere?)

There, I have it. My Christmas spirit can be renewed in the lives and faces of my friends and neighbors, my colleagues and my students, my family near and far…..these, who continue to embody real Christian values and possess the humanity to live by them. These who still have empathy for the sick and unfortunate, and will do their part to help them even when they can least afford it. Who recognize the poor and helpless as brother and sister human beings, for whom this season brings to mind the fact that we worship a God who sent us a King in a manger, to remind us of what true leadership is all about, and to provide us with an example of what every Christian should aspire to in this world. Whose Son refused to sell his soul to the devil for power and wealth.

Yep. That is definitely the sound of angels that I hear.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Christ still lives and reigns within us. Alleluia!

nativity

 


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WHY I WOULD SUPPORT NEEDLE EXCHANGE PROGRAMS

syringes“I don’t understand. Why would you, with all your experience and training, vote for a needle exchange program that supports the habits of drug users?” Her question was not rhetorical. Her face flushed with emotion, angry tears in her eyes, she radiated the frustration behind her outburst. Though the need for answers was obviously deep, she was too overwhelmed to wait through any discussion and stormed out of the room.

I fully understood her point of view, as well as her expectation that I should know better than to entertain what she saw as a completely irresponsible position, counter to all that I should know. But it was precisely my experience, as well as all my education and training, that over the years had brought me slowly but convincingly toward my present convictions on the subject. Like many of us, she may have had close and painful experiences with the devastating results of drug abuse, and with addiction. She may even have taken courses where professors taught the evils of drug use with passion, hoping to spare their young charges the life changing downward spiral of drug use. Or, she could easily be a social worker, or health care provider, daily living with the emotional draining and burnout of working with abusers and addicts. Who would blame her for her perspective on the subject? As I often tell my students, where we stand on a given issue depends on where we stand in life. Experience is valid; it is real. With social problems, however, it just can’t be generalized to explain the whole issue.

Without comprehending the whole issue, we fail to take other valid points into our understanding. And without those other valid points, we make decisions that are almost guaranteed to produce negative unintended consequences.

What are some of those other valid points?

  1. Drug abusers use and share dirty needles. This leads quickly and devastatingly to increased numbers of diseases, primarily HIV and Hepatitis C. Even if only drug users were to be affected, the incidence of disease could reach epidemic proportions.
  2. When users respond to and comply with the regulations of a needle exchange program, they can be tested for HIV and HepC, and immediate treatment begun. The cost of a needle exchange program is high, and the additional cost of treating one HIV patient could be as high as $100,000. There will be more than one patient. This is a commitment of both financial and emotional proportions that is, and should be, taken seriously by any community.
  3. The cost of not doing it is exponentially higher. First, an untreated HIV victim is likely to progress into full-blown AIDS. THE COST OF TREATING ONE AIDS PATIENT FROM THE TIME OF DIAGNOSIS TO DEATH IS, ON AVERAGE, ONE MILLION DOLLARS. Second, that untreated carrier of HIV and/or HepC is eventually going to infect any number of others in a variety of ways: Family, sex partners, healthcare workers, First Responders, law enforcement officers, good Samaritans…all are at risk. They are not the limit, however. And each one infected is going to generate costs of $100,000 to $1,000,000. The financial costs do not even begin to quantify the emotional and productivity costs to everyone from family to the entire community.

In other words, no matter the cost of the program, the cost of NOT having the program in the presence of a proven epidemic is incredibly higher!

Given #s 1-3, we have only looked at the actual costs of having, or not having, a needle exchange program. But what about the perspective of those who resent what they see as a moral, or an ethical, objection to “helping” drug abusers and addicts?

To this, I would answer first of all that the issue is NOT only about drug addicts. IT IS A PUBLIC HEALTH ISSUE. It is simply not rational to fail to protect our families, neighbors, public servants and health care workers because of our antipathy toward ANY one group of people, no matter how deeply that antipathy is grounded in our being.

Second, I would remind those of us who claim to be Christians, that–all appearances to the contrary–these abusers and addicts are still human beings. Once, many were teenagers or young adults who in the blissful ignorance of their mortality succumbed to the desire for the drug-induced high, the shared forbidden experience with like-minded peers.

Others were veterans, returning with dependencies or addictions already in place as one of the costs of defending our rights to live in freedom. Still others began as patients, some who were denied proper medication and sufficient care by our laws; others who for any number of reasons (rational or irrational) took to the streets when their increased tolerance for drugs failed to meet their need for them.

And finally, the fact is that addiction is not something anyone deliberately chooses for their life. No one looks forward to that relaxing drink after a hard day at work, or even a drug-induced escape from the stresses of life, believing that one day in the future they will be a slave to a substance that no longer provides these things, but instead has become a painful, frightening and life-threatening craving, constantly demanding to be satisfied. Instead, we either say “I can’t handle [the substance]” and leave it alone; or we believe that “I can handle it,” and take our chances.

Many, in fact, may be able to handle it better than others. However, no one is fully immune from potentially developing the disease of addiction. We are learning more about risk factors on almost a daily basis, but we still cannot predict with certainty who will develop addiction.

The disease is one in which the reward center of the brain runs amok, refusing to turn off when the need for the reward is satisfied.  Aside from he repeated use of the “addicting” drug, there are risk factors:

1.  Genetic factors actually account for about half of the likelihood that an individual will develop addiction.

2. Environmental factors (i.e. where and with whom do you live and work) are influential.  Unstable social supports and problems in interpersonal relationships affect the risk.

3.  Individual resiliencies (through parenting or later life experiences) are important.

4.  Culture also plays a role, as does exposure to trauma or stressors.

Also at risk are those who suffer from chronic disease, depression, or who feel themselves alone in the world–that no one cares if they live or die.

We may never eradicate drug abuse. That is no excuse for refusing to accept the personal and financial responsibilities for changing our perspectives about those who become victims of it.

What have we got to lose by changing the ways we think about this issue and working to alleviate it? By helping users and addicts to stay alive long enough to be helped and encouraged onto a pathway out of active addiction? In our thousands of years of civilization, we certainly haven’t accomplished much with our old ways of attempted control of drug abuse. I believe it is worth trying, worth the effort to erase the stigma of addiction and restoring the will to change that must happen before an addict can fight their addiction.

After all, when a person repeats the same ineffective activity over and over, expecting a different and positive result, has this not become one definition of insanity? Haven’t we criminalized the disease of drug addiction long enough? Don’t we need to stop the insanity?  Dealing in a positive manner with addicts early enough has the potential to lower the rate of addiction that eventually leads to serious criminal activity in order to feed the addiction. Must we simply stand by and watch this happen? Programs like needle exchange and early testing in clinics don’t increase the problem. They are the only thing proven useful so far in decreasing the infectious diseases, the illegal drug use, and the consequent costs to the community.

I choose, however, to see this not as a dilemma of abandoning a moral issue for a practical one, but rather the blessing of making the right choices, for all the right reasons.

Reference for the risk factors and definition of addiction:

http;//www.asam.org/for-the-public/definition-of-addiction

Other Resources: 

http://www.cdc.gov/IDU/facts/AED_IDU_SYR.pdf

http://hcvadvocate.org/hepatitis/hepC/needle_exchange.html


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THE SHAME OF A NATION: PERSECUTION OF PAIN PATIENTS AND THEIR PHYSICIANS

Lawmakers now claim that drug abuse and overdoses are caused by those who suffer pain and seek medical assistance to alleviate their pain enough for them to cope; to be able to participate in life! How patently absurd. [i]

Before I go on, know that NOTHING in my writing is geared toward promoting the free use of drugs. I firmly believe that second only to the persecution of innocent pain patients and physicians, the great shame of our nation is recreational drug abuse in all its forms, by whoever indulges in it. I have watched too many beautiful and bright college students and other young people destroy their lives in this way. Not just with pills, but also with alcohol, glue sniffing, paint inhaling, and smoking marijuana.

But I have to ask: Why have the law makers and enforcers turned against people who need medication for pain? The problem is not people who rightfully believe medication is intended to cure or alleviate medical conditions. The problem is people who either co-opt others to drug use, or who choose to use drugs themselves.

People choose to be responsible, or not. The medication is not to blame.

But now we are persecuting innocents, with a somewhat hysterical belief that they are somehow the cause. [ii] I submit a brief and incomplete list of resources below showing how the lives of good people are being destroyed by this 21st century witch hunt: Dr. Baldi, Dr. Salerian, Dr. Ibsen, and others[iii]. Also, articles referring to a host of pain patients who, failing to receive the pain care that is their right, submit to the fear of a life of unbearable pain and commit suicide. Or, they go to the streets for drugs. Who can blame the latter?

Their pain has already been criminalized by their own government.

This misdirected war has had unexpected consequences that are well documented. The efforts to restrict physicians and pharmacists[iv] from providing pain medications to patients has immediately resulted in an increase in heroin use, with a rise in overdoses and deaths. The response from law enforcement? “These are UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES[v]. “ It seems that in law enforcement it is OK to produce unintended consequences that stem directly from uninformed and under-researched legal action, killing innocent people and increasing the presence of street drugs.

When will we be smart enough to open an honest discussion between lawmakers, enforcers, and professionals who actually care about their patients?

When will pharmaceutical companies get concerned enough to research and market pain relievers that are potent enough to control pain, without dangerous side effects?

When will we all shake off our apathetic yet determined slide into the shame of our national mediocrity and the injustice and corruption in our system that accompanies it?

A South African woman once remarked to me that human beings are the most intelligent animals created by God; we are smart enough to create the means by which we can destroy the world – and stupid enough to use them.

           

[i]   Lynn Webster, MD: Lawmakers blame people who want pain controlled as the cause of RX abuse. http://www.tricities.com/workittricities/learn/article_3f71bb90-bad0-11e4-b4c7-9bf785dd481e.html?mode=story …

[ii] Lynn Webster http://www.orlandosentinel.com/opinion/os-ed-pain-drugs-021915-20150218-story.html  Terminal cancer patients are treated as drug addicts   “At each appointment I get scared my doctor will no longer prescribe” http://t.co/yYvcGWI4Uc War on Drugs victimizes pain pts http://updates.pain-topics.org/2012/06/how-war-on-rx-drugs-victimizes-pain.html   :  New restrictions hit veterans hard  http://t.co/r23KAbUIIm

[iii] These are but a few references: Dr. Mark Ibsen   http://t.co/BrZUXfUV3d or http://t.co/6midSDOLOQ ; Dr Salerian: Dennis Lee, the voice, PhiliP KEENE, New York Times Washington Post war on doctors http://fb.me/3zYOQM18d Trial Verdict: Dr. Baldi Not Guilty on All Charges http://whotv.com/2014/05/01/baldi-trial-not-guilty-on-all-charges/    Dr. Gary Shearer: Suspended Northern Kentucky pain doctor dies of ‘suspected suicide’       http://www.wcpo.com/news/local-news/boone-county/florence/dr-gary-shearer-suspended-northern-kentucky-pain-doctor-dies-of-suspected-suicide  The damage done by the war on opioids: the pendulum has swung too far http://www.dovepress.com/articles.php?article_id=16781 …   Local dr indicted   http://t.co/kYxwB0aGmH

[iv] http://t.co/jtJHRGkN1o   DEA responds after patients denied prescriptions

[v]

Experts: Officials missed signs of prescription drug crackdown’s effect on heroin use (Posted 2014-03-07 02:40:30)
Success in shuttering “pill mills” led to rising heroin use, and officials say the government missed warning signs.
The Washington Post – Washington, D.C.
Subjects: Heroin; Prescription drugs
Author: Markon, Jerry; Crites, Alice
Date: Mar 7, 2014
Start Page: n/a
Section: NATIONAL-POLITICS
The center, which closed in 2012, was separate from the unit employing prosecutors and agents who fight drug use. […]these officials defended their fight against prescription drug abuse, saying those efforts prevented numerous overdose deaths.


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WAR ON PHYSICIANS AND PATIENTS, CHAPTER 2

I wanted to believe that the State of Indiana, my new home, was a place where wise, knowledgeable heads prevailed; a place where lawmakers did not succumb to the pressures of being politically correct while morally wrong when lives were at stake. I have even twice used this blog space to compliment them on setting up a law regarding the prescribing of opioids that clearly recognized the difference between regulations and felonies, while protecting both patients and physicians.

I was wrong. The failed war on drugs has affected the State of Indiana as it has so many others, and opioid hysteria is prevailing over perspective in government circles. The law scheduled to become effective on December 31, 2014 will include limits on every form of opioid pain relief for chronic pain patients that are so restrictive as to completely ignore the uniqueness of every patient. Pain patients differ in their perspective of pain, in their experience of pain, their tolerance for pain, and their response to ANY treatment for pain—including opioids.

The treatment of chronic pain is not amenable to cookie-cutter protocols. Nor does it fit nicely into the “15 minute per patient” rule imposed as a necessity to satisfy insurance company/corporate bureaucracy requirements. It takes time, patience and extensive knowledge to successfully treat a patient with chronic pain and disability, to try to bring that patient back to some form of productive life. When this is not possible because of the extent of the disability, then the goal must be adjusted to simply making life bearable for the patient.

Indiana lawmakers once understood these facts. Now they seem to have abandoned reality and chosen to break their own law even before it takes effect. The law demands that physicians spend an almost impossible amount of time and effort being face to face with each patient before prescribing for them – yet lawmakers who never set eyes on these patients and who collectively have no medical license or even relevant training are prescribing what an allowable course of treatment can be for any pain patient. ANY pain patient, regardless of the cause of their pain, the disability it may cause, and the length of time the patient has suffered. Regardless of their tolerance for the treatment. Regardless of their response to treatment.

A physician notes:

“Regulatory overreach has a chilling effect by making prescribers fearful of jeopardizing their licenses.  This fear can result in physicians abandoning pain sufferers, even forcing some patients to seek black market medications or illicit drugs.  Such has been the unfortunate case in states that hastily passed burdensome pain regulations.  Heroin use in these states has increased dramatically as the supply of prescription pain medications has dwindled.” http://jamespmurphymd.com/2013/10/07/an-open-letter-to-the-medical-licensing-board-of-indiana/comment-page-1/#comment-1158

Just last week WHAS News (Louisville KY) reported that since the Kentucky Pain Law of 2012, Heroin overdoses rose from 3% to 40%. Heroin overdose EMS calls have risen a stunning 700%. All this, despite the fact that heroin trafficking arrests have risen 1300%. These statistics were attributed to the “unintended consequences” of the unrealistic, overly burdensome pain regulations.

Unintended consequences. Beautiful, bright college students found dead of heroin overdose. Physicians wrongly charged with felony prescribing, found dead by their own hands. Countless patients, deprived of their medications (many without even the option of being slowly weaned off of them) turning to suicide in their pain, or alternatively, to the criminal activity of street drugs.

And all we can say is “Oops! We did not intend for this to happen.” ???? Wake up, Indiana! Don’t willfully head down this same slippery slope!

The War on Drugs has failed. The War on Physicians and Patients is close to taking more lives than the Iraq war, and ruining just as many others. Simply passing harsher and more impossible laws is NOT going to help anyone. There is a better way.

Education is the better way. We have First Aid Certification, CPR, Lifeguard training and certification – so many lifesaving training programs for the general public as well as medical personnel. We need to add Basic training programs for the public on how to deal with drugs. We need Continuing Education programs for physicians and medical personnel on how to deal with opioids. Early education and continuing education can prevent deaths and disability from drug abuse, and help physicians to prescribe knowledgably. Alliances between physicians and pharmacists in drug management programs would make a huge difference in keeping legitimate patients and their caregivers safe.

Stay on the high road. Political power should be about making Americans safe, and so far the Wars on Drugs, Physicians and Patients have failed miserably in that regard. Please do not wait until that college student dead of heroin overdose is your child, or grandchild. Fight this battle WITH the physicians, not against them.