Stilled life, with Poppies.
It was on April 10, 2001 that Bonnie, my cousin Robb’s wife, died strapped to a hospital bed. She was 37. On Robb’s consent, the hospital unplugged her from the life support machines that had been keeping her alive for the prior week and, after about an hour, she passed away leaving behind a heartbroken husband and two young girls. Bonnie died from a stroke along with complications resulting from anti-convulsion medicine that she was taking to hide the fact that she was hopelessly addicted to pain medicine and was taking enough of it on a daily basis to kill the entire Marine Corps. Even if she could have come out of her coma, there would have been nothing left of her. . In non-technical terms, her brain was tapioca. With key exceptions, no one in her family knew about it until she took the slight detour into a coma that she didn’t wake up from. Experts like to bandy about with statistics about every kind of problem or issue there is, but all those numbers are someone’s family. Every ‘statistic’ is a real person.
The true numbers about prescription drug abuse is unknown, but what numbers are available tend to be unpleasantly sobering. “Although there are no perfect statistics on how many people misuse or abuse prescription drugs, in 1999 an estimated 4 million Americans over the age of 12 used prescription pain relievers, sedatives and stimulants for ‘non-medical’ reasons in the past month, with almost half saying they’d done so for
the first time.” (Kalb, 44-48) What this means is that there are millions of potential drug addicts who may move on to harder narcotics. Though many may only try those kinds of drugs once or twice, for some it will end with a life in tatters and for those like Bonnie, in a box.
What has made it more painful for our whole family is that Bonnie had been doing it for an estimated five years. For five years certain members of her family supplied her bottles of painkillers from New York State. Five years of addiction that, we believe, was the primary force in her insistence to move back to her home state of New York where, according to Robb, certain doctors will write you a prescription for almost anything you want as long as your insurance pays for it. For Bonnie, it was five years of slow-motion suicide.
According to the policy statement of the Board for Professional Medical Conduct, “The medical management of pain should be guided by current knowledge and acceptable medical practice which includes the use of pharmacological and non-pharmacological modalities. Pain should be assessed and treated promptly and appropriately with clear documentation.” While researching this paper, I could find no official state or federal guidelines for safe and accountable dispensing of painkillers in New York and few safeguards to prevent prescription fraud. So it would seem, with a bit of patience and good insurance someone could fuel their addiction indefinitely.
In essence, who watches the watchmen?
Bonnie got hooked on painkillers after surgery for breast augmentation in 1995. According to Robb, the after effects were painful enough for her to seek doctor
prescribed painkillers. Apparently, after a time, his insurance ran out on that kind of thing and by then she was dependent. They had a baby girl by then and Bonnie wasn’t going to go out and hold up some pharmacy. She had to find another way and soon it presented itself: her family.
Though no one knows the entire story and all of its twists, some things have come to light. Bonnie’s family started sending her drugs when she couldn’t continue getting them in Oregon where she and Robb were living in 1995. It appears in retrospect that her desire to move back to New York was mostly fueled by her craving for drugs.
Once back in New York, Bonnie had quick and easy access to a virtual smorgasbord of painkilling delight, and her family helped her to the table. Demerol, Vicodin, and Darvon (all opiate-based and potentially habit forming) were the main ingredients in the daily cocktail of trouble that she took every day. For these medicines, one or two a day would be enough for most people. Bonnie was taking an average of twenty-five. Normally she wouldn’t be able to legally acquire this many over a sustained period. Although she frequented several pharmacies, she got all of her prescriptions from one doctor. Her mother and two of her sisters supplied the balance of her habit. According to Robb, they had some addiction problems of their own and were happy to share with Bonnie.
The extent of the pill game became clearer after Bonnie’s death. A pharmacy technician at the hospital advised Robb to go around and check with the local pharmacies to look for certain prescriptions in her family’s name. The list went on for about four pages, covering two years and thousands of pills. Between Bonnie and her family
members, they were picking up about 150 high-potency pills for her a week. Robb said that the doctors told him that even if Bonnie had woken up from her coma, the stroke she had suffered would have rendered her brains mush and the long grip of the drugs had seriously damaged her heart, liver and other vital organs.
Part of the tragedy here is that Bonnie’s family has never been charged with prescription fraud. The doctor who wrote so many prescriptions for her continues to practice medicine in New York. According to Robb, although there was clear documentation of over-prescribing nothing was done to correct this particular doctor or prevent him from doing it to someone else. “So who’s to blame for the misuse of these drugs? Many abusers point the finger at doctors, who they say tend to prescribe medications too quickly without warning patients that certain drugs can be highly addictive. But once patients begin deceiving doctors and pharmacists by phoning in fake scripts or seeking prescriptions from multiple doctors, they become the culprits.” (Meier A –14) Apparently, this narcotic shell game is easily exploitable, hard to track, and acceptable to some practitioners despite the vast potential for abuse. Robb decided not to sue for malpractice; it wouldn’t have brought Bonnie back and he didn’t have the resources to continue what might have been a multi-year fight.
It’s hard to think of Bonnie as a strung-out drug addict, living for her next fix and hiding the truth from Robb, her two small girls, and almost everyone else in two families. Before starting this paper, I didn’t realize how serious a problem this has become in this country and around the world. The specter of illegal drugs and their attendant problems is the where the largest eye of attention is drawn; the underlying tragedy of prescription addiction is receiving mostly backhanded attention from the media and general public. Although many professional publications have volumes of research data about the dangers surrounding prescription painkillers, the crack-head shooting up a convenience store always draws more attention and is a convenient target for “The War on Drugs”. . The millions of quiet addicts and the devastation that they can wreak to themselves and their families remains a family secret.
Bishop, Robert. Personal interview May 2001.
Kalb, Claudia. “Playing with pain killers”. Newsweek Apr. 9, 2001 44-48
The Board for Professional Medical Conduct. Policy Statement for the Use of Controlled
Substances for the Treatment of Pain. 12 Sept. ’02. 22 Nov ’02.