David Cook: Looking for pills, I found a lot of pain

David Cook: Looking for pills, I found a lot of pain

June 22nd, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

This week, I went searching for pills.

Hours after area police raided two pain management clinics in Chattanooga, I visited four other pain clinics, talking with patients, friends of patients, nurses and receptionists, each time wanting to know: How easy is it to get narcotic prescriptions?

I'm not Fletch, so identifying myself as a Times Free Press columnist reduced the chance of finding someone willing to tell everything from probably-not-good to never-gonna-happen.

People, on so many levels, are hurting. Something bad. What they told me was, well, painful to hear.

Like a doctor trading prescriptions for sexual favors. Or the habit of crushing prescription pills then snorting them.

Or one woman's seven-hydrocodone-a-day prescription. Or a bar where, after your Budweiser, you can buy a handful of pills. Forty bucks for a Roxy, slang for roxicodone, similar to oxycodone.

I saw folks who seemed in legitimate pain needing help. Others shook and shuffled like addicts, or "zombies" as Calhoun, Ga., police Chief Garry Moss called them in 2011.

There seems a blurry edge between legal and the illegal. As his fiancé waited inside, a man praised one clinic as being the first to genuinely treat her pain instead of just giving her pills. But then:

"Others I know come here ... it is a pill mill," he said.

I heard a litany of symptoms: arthritis, tumors, fibromyalgia, blood clots, more arthritis, degenerative disks, a broken back, bipolar schizophrenia, pinched nerves, a smaller-than-normal spine, sharp leg pains, and, as one woman said, "brain issues."

(Someone I could relate to).

One clinic was so clean I could have eaten off the floor. Modern art on the walls. Cat Stevens playing on the background stereo.

The doctor's policy -- the nurse claimed -- is pain reduction through an epidural, an injection in the lower back. Rarely does the doctor write prescriptions, she said. I asked how many times patients, upon learning this, cancel their appointments.

"All the time," she said.

At another clinic, I asked to see a doctor. Booked until August, the nurse-receptionist replied. Yet a few questions later (the name of my primary physician, any medications I'm currently taking), an opening magically appeared on the calendar.

"Monday at 11," she said.

Cost: $250. No insurance required. A drug screening is. If I meet the requirements, I become a "member" of this clinic.

I thought about this later that night, as I drank a beer, then a glass of wine, then another.

In so many ways, we are trying to escape pain. From addictions to painkillers to alcohol to cigarettes (in profound amounts at pain clinics) to channel-surfing to overeating, so many of us are trying to ease our discomfort.

Why? How do we become more comfortable with discomfort and pain?

There is no objective test to measure pain. Doctors can prove a broken leg or high fever, but when a patient says the four magic words -- "I am in pain" -- there is no fast and hard answer.

At one clinic, I visited with three folks sitting in an idling Ford. Each claimed to take narcotic medication for pain. Morphine. Hydrocodone. Oxycodone. From 15 miligrams to 60. Three to four times a day.

One woman said she broke her back 30-odd years ago after falling from a high cliff-ledge. The other said she was mauled by a dog, causing brain injuries. A paralyzing car wreck followed. Then tumors. The third said he fell from scaffolding. Seventeen feet. Hasn't worked since.

They smoked L&M cigarettes and drank sodas. A paperback copy of "To Kill a Mockingbird" lay in the backseat floor. Leaving, I told them the same thing I told every other person I interviewed: I hope things get better.

One of them -- who said she'd been taking pain medication for 37 years -- spoke back.

"Can't get any worse."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. His columns will appear regularly on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and on Tuesday in an online-only version.