I’m going to change the name and description of my patient to protect her identity. “Sally” has been doing great the entire six months she’s been my patient. Sally was ready for recovery. Over the last ten years, she’s been to multiple inpatient programs, for up to three months at a time, for treatment of her opioid addiction. She had achieved some time in abstinent recovery, ranging from a few weeks up to nine months, but relapsed because she never felt normal off all opioids. She continued to have low-grade nausea, fatigue, and felt achy most days. When she saw me last summer, she’d been in a terrible relapse for around eight months, and had been injecting the opioid pills prescribed by a local pain clinic. Her husband was supportive, and appropriately worried Sally was going to die of an overdose.
Sally wanted to start Suboxone, but wasn’t expecting much from it. She’d investigated Suboxone on the internet, and thought her opioid tolerance was too high for this medication to work. However, but she wanted to try every option before entering a methadone treatment center. I also suspected Suboxone wouldn’t be strong enough, but agreed with her that it would be worth a try.
She felt normal within the first week. We started with 4mg on the first day, and then went to 8mg on day two. When we went to 16mg on day three, Sally was amazed and relieved that she felt back to normal. She didn’t feel high and she didn’t feel in withdrawal.
She hasn’t looked back since. Every urine drug screen, done nearly every visit, has been positive only for Suboxone. She goes to 12-step meetings, has a sponsor, and does service work at her home group. She’s relatively happy, though she still takes an anti-depressant to prevent a relapse of her depression, which has been severe in the past.
Anyway, I say all of this to point out how well she’s doing. She’s also getting her physical health concerns addressed, and started seeing a dentist to get her teeth fixed. She had neglected them during active addiction, and needed a great deal of work done. She opted for dental implants.
At her last visit, we discussed pain management after her procedure. The pain from many dental procedures can sometimes be managed with anti-inflammatories, but I knew dental implants were more complicated. I told Sally I’d like to talk with the doctor who will be managing her post-operative pain. I wrote down my cell number for Sally to give to her doctor, rather than my office number, to allow her dentist to get in contact with me more easily. I told Sally to stop her Suboxone 36 hours pre-procedure, so that her opioid receptors wouldn’t be so blocked that short-acting opioids would be ineffective. We planned for her husband to hold the bottle of pain pills, and dispense as directed by her oral surgeon. I instructed her how to make the change back to Suboxone once she no longer needed pain medication. I planned to see Sally one week after the procedure, so I could make sure she was OK, and back on Suboxone.
I heard nothing until this morning. I got a call on my cell phone from Dr. “X’s” nurse. She said Dr. X had just finished the procedure, but didn’t feel comfortable prescribing opioids for an addict. Dr. X preferred for me to handle her post-operative pain.
I felt my temper flare immediately. “Gee, I wish your doctor had called me before the procedure so we could talk about this. Since I don’t do oral surgery, I don’t know how much pain patients usually experience. Surgeons usually manage their own patients after surgery. What does Dr. X usually prescribe for patients after this procedure?”
“Thirty pills of oxycodone 10mg. But the doctor wasn’t comfortable giving that many. He’s willing to give her only 15 pills.”
“You know, I gave her my cell number so your doctor could call me before the procedure. It’s better to decide all of this prior to the surgery, don’t you agree?”
“We don’t have time to call everyone.”
“But you called me today.” I felt a familiar twitch in my right eyelid. “Look, it’s OK for him to prescribe what he usually prescribes. After all, she will have as much pain as any other patient. In fact, because of her opioid tolerance, she may need a bit more than an average patient. We’ve talked to her husband and he’s going to hold the pill bott…”
She interrupted me, saying, “The doctor doesn’t want to get into some big deal, writing for a bunch of pain pills for an addict. The doctor wants you to take over prescribing for pain.”
“I know he does…” it came out as an evil splutter because I was thinking about how much Sally was probably paying this guy, who should have told her in advance that he wasn’t going to prescribe post-op pain medication. I know dental implants are not cheap and probably not covered by insurance. And I suspected this dentist, to whom she was likely paying a big pile of money, looked down on Sally because of her history of addiction. I felt anger.
“You know,” I said, spittle gathering at a corner of my mouth, “You know, it isn’t ethical to withhold pain medication if you do a procedure that causes pain. I can understand he doesn’t want to write large amounts for an extended time, but we’re talking about an acute pain situation that will last what, about a week? He knows that better than me. He needs to prescribe what he usually does to any other patient. We’ve already talked to Sally about precautions to prevent a relapse.”
The dilemma was solved because apparently, a doctor was listening to our conversation at the nurse’s elbow. He indicated to the nurse that he would be willing to prescribe the usual amount. I was miffed that the doctor didn’t talk to me himself, but he may not have been the one who did Sally’s procedure. At any rate, that was what I wanted anyway, so I tried to be helpful and give them information for future use.
“You can call me any time about patients with both pain and addiction. It’s more complicated to treat them, but with proper safeguards it can be done without too much trouble…”
“Ok thanks. Thanks for talking to us.”
At that point it sounded like the nurse would rather get on with her work day than listen to me try to explain how addiction is a medical problem that can be managed just like any other chronic disease.
I was angry because the dentist didn’t call me before the procedure, and because he wasn’t honest with the patient. He neglected to tell her about his plans to write for less than usual the amount of pain medication. I was sad because I suspected that he looked down on this nice lady her because of her history of addiction…but not so much that he wouldn’t take her money for fixing her teeth.
It’s a shame, because that dentist could have learned something from Sally, like how she’s a funny, warm person who has courageously overcome a devastating and life-threatening illness.