New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is so outraged by people hooked on prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin that he’s ordered new rules for the city’s hospitals, limiting patients to a maximum three-day supply. When challenged that this might cause unnecessary suffering, his callous response was:
. . . supposing it is really true so you didn’t get enough painkillers and you did have to suffer a little bit. The other side of the coin is people are dying and there’s nothing perfect . . .
Easy to say when you are someone whose immense wealth and power assure you that you will never need to spend a moment in pain if there is any way to avoid it.
Suffering at the hands of the prohibitionists
But let me tell you what such misguided efforts do to regular people like me. Roughly 25 year ago, on a cold Friday night around 10 p.m., I was hurrying to the house from my car when I slipped on a patch of ice and flipped up into the air, landing on my right arm with the full force of my body against the edge of a concrete block by the side of the driveway.
Later, I learned that the impact had exploded two inches of bone. I remember marveling at the x-ray, realizing that those sparkly things were the shards of bone fragments that were barely holding my arm together. Nerve tests later confirmed that the angle at which I hit the ground had also crushed major nerves coming out of my spine.
I will spare you the play-by-play of the entire next six months of excruciating agony, but the cliche is true – my life changed in an instant. Literally overnight, I went from being a relatively fit runner to being an invalid whose thoughts were consumed by dealing with pain.
My then-boyfriend/now-husband Drew saw what happened that night through our front window. He dashed out to help me, then ran inside to call an ambulance.
All I remember is that each time I tried to sit up, a wallop of pain would knock me back down. A kindly nurse in emergency dosed me with Demerol, so they could x-ray my arm without me screaming. Shortly afterward, the attending doctor pronounced the injury so severe that he would not cast my arm for fear the weight might pull the bone completely apart.
Soon I was on my way back home with a prescription for Vicodin and the name of a surgeon to call on Monday.
It was later that night, as the Demerol began to wear off, that we realized how useless the prescription was, with every pharmacy in the city closed. I still remember that night, as wave after wave of pain hit with no relief. I sat on the couch gritting my teeth, unable to sleep for even a moment.
First thing in the morning, Drew hurried to Meijer to fill the prescription, only to be told that Vicodin is a high-level narcotic that can only be dispensed to the actual patient. When Drew came home empty-handed, I sobbed. I knew I could not make it to the car without passing out.
That’s when we also realized that the prescription was for five pills, maybe a one-day supply. Sometime on Sunday, I would run out even if we could figure out a way to get the prescription billed.
Bottom line is that a physician friend agreed to break the rules for us. She wrote a prescription for two days of pills in Drew’s name, sparing me the need to move because each time I did, the bone pieces grinding together caused me to scream.
Living with chronic pain
For the next six months, I learned to became an aficionado of pain. There was the pain from the bones trying to knit, the ache from muscles atrophying, the zinging pain down the radial nerve. There was also the special pain emanating from the nerves in the spine, as well as the pain in my wrist that made me wince whenever I tried to use my fingers .
A band of skin damaged by the concrete block became so tender that I would not allow anything to touch it – no clothing, no blanket, no washcloth. Trying to describe this unique pain to others, the closest I could come was to say it felt like someone was holding a blowtorch to that patch of skin without letup.
If you woke up in the morning feeling what I felt all day long, you would scream for an ambulance. Even with a steady supply of Vicodin, each day was a nightmare and the nights were worse.
For the first two months, I sat on the couch each day, arm in a sling, waiting for new bone to fill in the blanks. At night, I slept sitting up, propped up in front and back by pillows. Yet each time I would start to nod off, my body would slump, eventually triggering lightning strikes of pain up and down my arm, waking me up again and again.
The toughest time was when the doctors told me that bone had mended – but the pain remained. I gave myself a deadline – find a way to bring the pain under control by Christmas or I would kill myself before the beginning of the new year.
My only blessing was that I was left-handed, and it was my right arm that was damaged. I literally wrote a book one-handed, as much to distract me from the pain as to make a living. Using my left hand also allowed me to draw a detailed map of all 16 discrete pain points that I gave to the list of new doctors I visited seeking help.
By the time summer arrived, I had received varying diagnoses and no real relief. Eventually, they settled on RSD – reflex sympathetic dystrophy. No matter the terminology, the reality was gthe same, unrelently pain during the day and not a single night of decent sleep.
Finally, someone told me that Sparrow Hospital had opened a pain clinic, the first ever in Lansing. I immediately made an appointment. A series of nerve blocks and steroid shots over the new few months, and the pain went from 11 on a scale of 10 to a manageable five or six. I threw my Vicodin away.
Even today, more than 25 years later, my arm remains vulnerable. If someone grabs it the wrong way, I pay the price for a day or two. But I have not had a prescription for Vicodin in years, even for emergencies. I have found other ways to ignore the pain, but I want to know that I can have access to pain meds when I need them.
I remember talking with the doctor about the torture I had endured. He said patients like me made him hate the War on Drugs. He talked about how doctors were being increasingly pressured into under-medicating their patients. The doctor (whose name escapes me – the Vicodin?) said that research showed fewer than 2% of people who receive narcotics for chronic pain become addicted if and when the pain is controlled. Yet the drug warriors were forcing doctors to fill out everything in triplicate and justify every effort to provide their patients relief.
Our friend, the physician who helped me that terrible weekend, told us later that she ended up under review for prescribing to a patient they suspected she had not seen in person.
Those months in pain changed me. The knowledge of what my body could do to me leaves me deeply frightened. I worry that one day I will awake and feel that terrible pain again.
I cannot watch moves with scenes of torture and violence. (I walked out of Marathon Man. No Zero Dark Thirty for me.) I start hyperventilating at the first sign of an actual threat, protecting my arm in retreat.
I find it difficult to convey the fury I feel when I hear what Bloomberg is proposing, dismissing pain as if it is some kind of minor inconvenience. My chest tightens when I think of how his white, male billionaire privilege shields him from understanding that the decisions he makes have consequences for real people like me.
Bloomberg the One Percenter has a net worth around $25 billion, making him the 15th richest person in the world. A card-carrying elitist, Bloomberg views me as cannon fodder in his misguided new maneuvers in our neverending and ill-fated war on drugs.
Yes, people die abusing prescription drugs. People also die absent-mindedly walking into traffic and intentionally jumping off bridges. We should always do whatever we can to reduce the problem without undue inconvenience to others. But robbing people in pain of the only medicine that makes life bearable is an obscene solution to a problem that can be addressed in so many better ways.
Bloomberg must know he is creating new rules and regulations that will never affect him. Only someone as shielded from real life as Bloomberg could be so heartless. If we want to create a caring and compassionate society that works for average citizens, we need better leaders. Being rich should not be an automatic disqualification, but being clueless and cold-hearted is.