Have you ever played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon?
It’s a game based on the “six degrees of separation” concept, which contends that any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance-links apart. Experiments to test this hypothesis have deemed it an “academic urban myth,” but it can be fun to see social connections and realize our world is sometimes quite a bit smaller than we think.
Quite the opposite of fun is the reality that we are living in an era when we can think of the one or two or three degrees of opioid carnage that any one of us may intersect with. Of course, those of us in the health-care world have a higher likelihood to encounter patients and families whose lives have been forever altered by opioid addiction.
But stepping outside of our professional space, we have all likely been touched by tragedies related to misuse of prescription pain killers.
I heard a story from my mom last week of a gentleman “2 degrees from her” who recently ended his own life in a parking lot of a pain clinic, leaving a horrific mess in his car and a damning note for those who had “failed him” in his quest for pain relief. His tapering plan did not suit him. So that’s a 3-degree opioid tragedy for me. A friend of mine recently had her divorce finalized. She’s a health care professional whose husband could not, would not, discontinue the use of opioids for chronic back pain. It rendered him absent as a father to their children, unemployed, and emotionally unavailable to her, and she just couldn’t do it anymore. That’s a 2-degree for me. The lovely, kind, attractive, intelligent physician who delivered my eldest son was found in her recliner at home, passed away due to an accidental overdose of hydrocodone a few ago. Her husband was a pharmacist. That’s one-degree for me.
How many degrees away are you from an opioid tragedy?
According to the CDC, 46 people die every day from prescription opioid overdoses, and this does not include those seeking (and succumbing to) heroin, a substitute to satisfy their addiction when their providers stop prescribing. That works out to one person dying every 31 minutes. I just did the math. “Unintentional poisoning,” a.k.a. drug overdose, is the most common cause of accidental death among American adults ages 25 to 64, ahead of motor vehicle accidents and suicide.
I usually write upbeat and encouraging blogs for EIM. But there are times when even the greatest optimists can’t deny the sadness and disgrace of what is going on around us. And as I ponder the numbers and my personal closeness to these tragedies, I wonder, “How many more people are going to have to die before we get a handle on this?”
More importantly than wondering about abstract futuristic questions, we each need to ask, “What’s my role in seeing this tragedy end?” Next time, I plan to write about my patient and, dare I say, friend, Callie (which is an alias of course). Callie has a story to tell that is not as dramatic as what I’ve noted above. It’s actually more similar to what I usually like to tell: it’s a story with a happy ending. But before we go there, I think it’s sometimes good just to sit in the “ick” of what is and ask ourselves, “What am I going to do about it?” Until next time…