The Opioid Crisis and Me
Just over a month ago I gave birth to my daughter, Celeste Emerson Thibeault. Her birth was an adventure to say the least. During the peak of labor, the pain was excruciating. At that point I didn't want an epidural, but needed something to take the edge off lest I rip my husband’s hand off.
And so began my first experience with opiates.
Before I could even summon the words, the nurse offered me fentanyl , one of the drugs at the forefront of the opiate crisis in our country. Several hours of pushing later (and still no baby), I was being wheeled in for a c-section, where in addition to being numbed completely from the chest down, I was also injected with high amounts of morphine in anticipation for the pain I would eventually feel when the spinal block wore off.
Once in recovery, I was offered pain meds on the hour every hour. My nurse call system even had a button specifically for requesting more pain medication. When I was finally discharged from the hospital, I was sent away with a comically large bottle of Vicodin, with urging to make sure I didn’t miss a single dose.
My husband and I were given obsessively detailed instructions on everything related to our daughter and my recovery: How many dirty diapers in a day she MUST have, the color(s) they should be, the size and color my incision scar should appear to be, the length of shower I was allowed to take, how many stairs I was allowed to climb, how many minutes our daughter should go between feedings, etc, etc.
In contrast, as I left the hospital loaded up on pain meds, not a single sentence in the 30 page discharge instructions warned of any risk of pain medication addiction. While in the hospital, in advising me of the pros and cons of additional pain medication, not a single nurse or doctor warned that the drugs that I was on could become addictive.
To me, this was shocking. Don’t get me wrong. I do not regret for a second the medication I took. I had major abdominal surgery. I wouldn’t have been able to care for my daughter in the days following her birth if I wasn’t highly medicated.
What was shocking was that, despite killing over 30,000 people a year, not a single nurse, doctor, or hospital administrator offered any warning or information about what I should do if, after weeks of taking strong pain killers, I found myself unable to function without them. In spite of the fact that the President has made the opioid crisis a national emergency and the reality that prescription pain abuse often leads to heroin abuse in young people, no one took time out of their day to talk to my husband and I about the risks of taking strong painkillers on a daily basis. As unique as I like to believe myself to be, I know I was not the only patient to leave the hospital that day with a bag full of pain killers and not a single warning about what to do if I became dependent on them.
As a public defender, what this experience has shown me is that things like sentencing reform, drug court, and alternative sentencing programs aren’t enough to help our addicted clients. We also have to look at the places where addiction can sneak into people’s lives and work to prevent it from happening. We have to do work on our client’s behalf, after they’ve already struggled with addiction, but we also need to be doing work to help prevent it, minimizing the number of people who become our clients in the first place.