Social Worker and Mother in Recovery 30 years from Opioid Prescriptions, Son Died from Overdose

. By Jane Mundy

“When the pharmaceutical industry came up with supposed research saying that people with real pain cannot become addicted those of us in recovery were astonished!”

When Lori was hospitalized for a back injury 40 years ago, she was given Demerol injections and sent home with a host of opioid painkillers and sedatives. “I became physically dependent, with an unlimited supply of drugs prescribed mostly by one doctor,” Lori says. “For many years I was non-functional and depressed, and a single mother. I am lucky to be alive.”

During that time, two doctors published in the New England Journal of Medicine (1980) a letter titled "Addiction Rare in Patients Treated with Narcotics." They wrote that the development of addiction was very rare in hospitalized patients who briefly received opioids and had no prior history of addiction. (Interestingly, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM)has been funded in the past by the pharma industry.)

Lori met a doctor who was also addicted to opioids. “He told me that I had to get off the pills or I would go insane. He picked me up at my house and brought me to an AA meeting—I was also drinking back then,” she says. “I didn’t know that I even had a problem, and a few days later he got me into detox, where I stayed for 37 days.” During that time Lori had to be transferred to the hospital because she got so sick from withdrawal, but she was sent back to the program and completed it.

“No one knew what to do with me back in the 1980s, but I knew that I had to get off the pills, get a job and get my life in order,” Lori adds. She did better than that. Lori went back to school, got a degree in Human Services and went on to get a Master's Degree in social work. “I worked in different treatment programs. And when I worked for the state of Rhode Island, I was overseeing my old councilors. Talk about full circle!”

Sounds like Lori’s life was back on track, but both her sons had opioid addictions. “I knew they had alcohol problems in their teens, and I knew my youngest had been in and out of treatment for alcohol as an adolescent—Jason had moved in with his dad. But I had no clue about the drugs until 14 years ago—Jason was 26 years old when he told me.”

Lori says that Jason did well in recovery for many years, he helped countless people and he was a devoted father to his daughter. He wrote her a letter, saying how much he wanted to change and work hard. Last January, however, Jason called his mother for help—he was having a problem with Vicodin—an opioid that is often used as a recreational drug. He had relapsed and Lori took him to detox.

“As soon as Jason got out of detox he had a gallbladder attack,” Lori explains. “In the hospital they gave him an injection of Dilaudid [an addictive narcotic painkiller that is stronger than morphine] despite his fiancé telling the doctors that he just got out of detox and not to give him anything too strong. They sent him home with a prescription for opiates.”

Jason died two weeks later—one year ago. The autopsy shows that he was using heroin and the police found needles filled with heroin in his pocket. “So he didn’t commit suicide—he overdosed,” says Lori. “I’m not blaming his doctor—I do blame my doctor for what happened to me so many years ago-- but they should have been more sensitive regarding his getting out of detox. If the health professionals were better educated and saw first-hand the devastation that addiction causes, maybe my son’s death could have been avoided. He didn’t have a chance when he was given Dilaudid.”

The 1980 Letter on the Risk of Opioid Addiction

Researchers in a new study published in the NEJM (June 2017), the same journal that published that one-paragraph letter in 1980, say the opioid crisis “arose in part because physicians were told that the risk of addiction was low when opioids were prescribed for chronic pain,” and those five sentences published in 1980 was “widely invoked in support of this claim, even though no evidence was provided by the correspondents.”

The authors concluded: “In 2007, the manufacturer of OxyContin and three senior executives pleaded guiltyto federal criminal charges that they misled regulators, doctors, and patients about the risk of addiction associated with the drug. Our findings highlight the potential consequences of inaccurate citation and underscore the need for diligence when citing previously published studies.” The researchers found that the letter was cited more than 600 times since it was published, and sharply increased after opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin in the mid-1990s.

“I am thrilled the state attorneys are going after the pharmaceutical companies who marketed opioids,” says Lori. “While many overdoses are from illegal drugs, our addictions started with prescription drugs, and they heavily contributed to Jason’s death.

“I welcome this opportunity to say that people can and do recover. But a lot of us in recovery are getting older with a new set of medical problems and pain. We seem to be an enigma to most doctors: they are just beginning to understand addiction but have no idea what to do with people in recovery who need surgery, have suffered multiple losses, and are adjusting to retirement. Lastly, I would love to help in any way I can to make Big Pharma pay for the damages they have caused: families torn apart, hearts broken and lives lost.”

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