Having been a patient for most of the last seven years, I can tell how some things have changed.
One thing that seems quite different is pain management. After my mastectomy and my diagnosis of metastasis in 2006, I was given loads of painkillers - morphine, Oxycontin, percocet, Tylenol with codeine and others - all in small amounts. I never finished a prescription and I always brought the leftovers to the drug store for disposal.
Fast forward to my brain surgery last fall. I was fortunate to be sent home after two nights in the hospital (you heal much better at home). The last thing that they sorted out was pain management. I remember a team of doctors standing around my bed. One of them asked, "What has worked best for you in the past?"
"Oxycontin," I replied without hesitation. I never felt particularly high while taking it but it very effectively killed the pain.
Several of the doctors exchanged glances. One shook his head sadly and said, "Well, we'll figure something out."
I was sent home with hydromorphone, another opioid. It certainly diminished the pain and since I'd never had brain surgery before, I can't compare it to anything else. I did think it was odd that they would ask me what worked and then send me home with something completely different.
In less than two weeks, never taking more than prescribed, I ran out. My surgeon is really hard to reach, so I called my family doctor. She simply asked me how many I thought I would need. When I hesitated, she said, "You need to take care of the pain in order to heal. Addiction is the last thing I'm worried about."
My doctor has known me for more than 30 years, so I decided she was probably right. And if she wasn't judging me, why should I judge myself? Sure enough, I took painkillers for the next couple of weeks, and I didn't finish the prescription.
I was reminded of all this on Tuesday, when I was told that I could manage the pain after portacath surgery, with "whatever you'd take for a headache."
It hurt a whole lot more than that and, in the end, I was glad that I'd held onto those last few pills in the hydromorphone bottle. I took the narcotic for two nights and I was able to sleep. It didn't completely eliminate the pain but it did a pretty good job of masking it. And I only needed it for a couple of days.
I've heard from others who've been through portacath surgery who've said they had more than Tylenol level pain. I couldn't swear to it but I'm pretty sure they gave me something stronger when I had my first port put in, seven years ago.
I don't mean to diminish the horror of addiction and I understand that doctors wish to remain vigilant. However, pain medicine was developed for a reason and I would think that after surgery would be a prime time for it to be prescribed.
My friend Lene has written extensively about chronic pain management, the risk of addiction and the patronizing attitude of many medical professionals. If they wouldn't give a prescription to an adult woman with no history of addiction for just a few days, what must life be like for those who live in chronic, agonizing pain?
There's got to be a better way to address the problems of addiction and pain management. Unaddressed pain costs lives, too.