Compassion for Opioid Users

Years ago, I lived in the suburbs outside of Atlanta in a wonderful little neighborhood. Just up the street lived Joe and his wife Kate, they were married about 25 years, had two great teen-aged kids and the house was Homes and Gardens gorgeous – Joe was obsessed his yard, the lawn was flawless like a fairway, and Kate had an eye for color and design. Joe worked as a master carpenter, and Kate was a nurse working at a hospital nearby. She hurt her back trying to catch a falling patient. The pain was so debilitating that she had to take time off. She was prescribed opiates which worked like magic. She went back to work and all seemed fine. Weeks later, the talk of the neighborhood was the intense arguments that people could hear from the street.

We didn’t know it then, but Kate was addicted to prescription pain medications. 

 Things continued to deteriorate with the family, and a few months later Joe moved out. The lawn began to get long, weeds started to grow. A few more months, and Kate was fired from the hospital for falling asleep on a patient. In May of that year, her daughter was looking forward to the prom, and had been baby sitting and working as a life guard, saving every penny to buy the perfect dress. One day as the prom neared, she was crying hysterically and yelling at her mother from the driveway for all to hear – her mother had stolen her money to buy drugs. No dress. No prom.

Kate’s son, unable to deal with the tumult in the home, decided to join the army and Kate’s daughter moved in with her boyfriend’s family. By late summer the house was in foreclosure.   

This entire family had been devastated as surely as any other catastrophe. Kate’s story and that of her family is far from unique. People often say “I just can’t imagine why anyone would ever stick a needle in their arm to get high”. But that presumes that people are making a choice. Just five days of opiate based pain medications can capture a person to addition. The intense pain and sickness that comes from withdrawal is so terrible that more pills are needed to avoid it. But when the pills become too hard to come by, the idea of much cheaper and accessible drugs like heroin become the alternative. These are typically not the moral failings of people; far too often they are people like Kate, Joe… and their kids.

And, they are often like Kristin. Early one morning as I pulled up to the hospital for a 7 am meeting, a car sped past me and skidded to a stop in front of the visitors’ entrance. A young man jumped from the driver’s seat and ran around to the passenger side. I started running to the car. He was pleading with Kristin to wake up, but she was unresponsive. He was trying to sit her up, when I leaned in to lift her tiny frame into my arms, asking the young man what had happened… he was vague in his answers. As we got to the lobby I gently laid her down on the floor and checked for signs of a pulse as I waved at the receptionist and asked her to send a team from the ER right away. I was desperately trying to understand how this lovely young lady could be here in this situation. It was then that I noticed a small puncture and bruise high up on her left forearm. The team from the ER appeared in what seemed like an instant. I stepped back as they placed her on a gurney and rushed her back toward the ER. I stood there stunned, saddened and worried for her. 

And then I thought of her mom and dad, who at this moment had no idea that Kristin was in such jeopardy. I worried all day about her, and then learned later that she had been saved by the skilled team of clinicians. She was so close to death at such a young age – no older than my own daughter.

Neither Kristin nor Kate were criminals, and they are not deserving of our condemnation. In fact, they are victims of the circumstances. Americans are waking up to this national scourge. A majority of Americans favor treatment only (58%) while only 26% believe that drug use due to addiction should be criminalized. And it’s a bipartisan issue where both parties largely agree. But notice that 16% had no opinion, which means either that people lack information or feel the issue is not relevant to them.

This is a national crisis that requires policy changes nationally and locally. This isn’t a faraway problem, there are many among you reading today that know of a similar story – and it is both comforting and tragic at the same time – to know that you are not alone. It can – and has – impacted people that would have never believed it possible. 

With compassion and collaboration, we can help alleviate this plague on our country. It’s worthy of our time and attention, before the next tragic story is told.

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