The real shame of the opioid crisis

My little sister, Jenny, didn’t have a funeral. Her estranged, drug-dealer husband took her body from the hospital morgue after her gruesome death from prescription opioids. I never saw her again after she died. He left her ashes at a funeral home in Lockport, N.Y., unwilling to pay the bill, abandoning her one final time to be thrown away like trash in a modern-day potter’s field.

Jenny was a 44-year-old college graduate and middle-class suburban mom. We had no idea she was addicted to opioids. No interventions. No rehab. In my reality, my sister died in less than a week from opioid addiction, but the septic truth is she’d been dying for years right in front of us.

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In July 2017, I got a call in Washington, D.C., telling me to come home because Jenny was in the hospital and had just been revived with Narcan (naloxone), a drug used to reverse opioid overdose. I arrived the next day impatient to get her discharged and into a private treatment program, but Jenny never left the third floor of Kenmore Mercy Hospital. She moaned for Dilaudid, a synthetic opioid, right up until she lost consciousness.

She died six days after I got the call, with my parents on either side her bed holding her hands. My mom had a baseball hat on; I never saw her cry. My dad, a Vietnam combat veteran and Bronze Star recipient, was silent. It was so quiet. My sister Colleen and I sat at the foot of the bed, with a perfectly framed picture of our youngest sister and my parents, one that I’ll never be able to unsee. It was a heartbreaking and gruesome death for my sister and our family.

I was completely blindsided.

After Jenny died, I researched the opioid crisis, reading surgeon general reports, commission recommendations, all the state opioid plans and legislation. I reached out to health experts and doctors. I met with Senate staff. I gave a TEDx talk, published op-eds and volunteered at an outpatient addiction treatment center in Baltimore.

Only then did I begin to feel rage, because I learned the opioid crisis is a manufactured, and profitable, scourge spawned by Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. In the 1990s doctors were treating pain more aggressively while Purdue Pharma was pushing OxyContin as a non-addictive pain medication — a lie. By 1996, Purdue Pharma had data that early users engaged in significant abuse of their drug, but they continued to aggressively market opioids directly to health care providers.

This created massive waves of addiction in Rust Belt communities, where patients who suffered from chronic pain became addicted to opioids while simply following their doctors’ orders. Purdue Pharma didn’t act alone: Lawmakers, lobbyists, drug distributors and “pill mills” that dispensed large quantities of prescription drugs for cash were making profits in small towns like Kermit, W.Va., which has just 392 residents, yet received 5.7 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills between 2005 and 2011.

In 2015, the White House Council of Economic Advisors estimated the costs of the opioid crisis at $504 billion; last month Purdue Pharma reached a $270 million settlement in Oklahoma, reportedly to avoid a televised courtroom trial over its role in the opioid addiction epidemic.

Today, 46 percent of American adults have a family member or close friend who struggles with addiction. In 2017, 72,000 people died from overdose, and the number continues to grow each year. My sister was one of them who never got the treatment she needed; 21 million Americans have substance use disorder, yet just 10 percent get treatment. The opioid crisis is at the intersection of pain, economic disadvantage and isolation. Fueled by shame and stigma, it’s a perfect storm quietly metastasizing across the country with no end in sight.

Our family’s story isn’t unique. It isn’t the saddest story. Like too many other American families who have lost loved ones to the opioid crisis, I am heartbroken. Every day for the past two years, I have felt the crushing, almost debilitating weight of shame. It’s not shame about my sister for having substance use disorder; I’m ashamed of myself for not being educated about this sooner.

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Our free market enabled and financially rewarded the behavior of Purdue Pharma for more than 20 years. I hope Purdue Pharma and others who misled the public and profited from this health crisis get the justice they deserve.

Kelly O’Connor is a product manager with the U.S. Digital Service.

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