Bioethics Blogs

Chronic Pain and the Opioid Epidemic: Wicked Issues Have No Simple Solutions

Written By Myra Christopher
My mom was a steel magnolia (i.e., southern and perfectly charming), but she had a steel rod up her back. After her first surgery for stomach cancer at age 53, she refused pain medication because she said that she “could take it.” She was young and strong and committed to “beating cancer.” After nearly two years of chemotherapy, radiation and two more surgeries, the cancer won. Eventually, I watched her beg nurses to give her “a shot” minutes before another was scheduled and be told they were sorry but she would have to wait. I could tell by the expressions on their faces they truly were sorry.

Calls of Desperation

When the Center for Practical Bioethics began more than 30 years ago, I frequently had calls and letters from other family members telling me that an elderly loved one was dying in terrible pain and that the care team refused to give pain medication more often than scheduled or to increase the dose because they were told their loved one might become addicted and/or because a higher dose of morphine might affect the patient’s respiration and hasten death.
·      ICU nurses regularly reported calling physicians and pleading for orders to increase pain medication only to be told, “Absolutely no and do not call again!”
·      Physicians told me about patients who refused medication and suffered unnecessarily because they believed their pain was punishment from God and that their pain was “redemptive.”
·      A case I will never forget involved a father who coaxed his son dying of bone cancer to “be a man” and refuse the pain meds his doctor had prescribed.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.