Dr. Rosemary Orr didn’t see it coming. It was the morning after Mother’s Day. She needed a ride to work, so her 24-year-old son Robin drove her. She was in a hurry to get to Seattle Children’s Hospital in Seattle, where she is chief of anesthesiology. Otherwise, she says, she would have spent more time talking with him.
She’d been worried about his sleeping habits, his weight loss. She knew her smart, handsome son had struggled with addiction to OxyContin in the past. But he’d kicked it. He’d assured her of that. He’d looked her in the eye and said, “You don’t have to worry about me, Mom.”
No parent wants to believe her child is using. Not even one who is a doctor.
“I was stupid and desperate enough to believe that explanation,” Orr says now.
When she got home from work that day, she found Robin on the floor of his room, dead of an overdose.
Orr’s son is one of thousands of Washington citizens, including a growing number of young people, who have died from prescription pain medications. Prescription medication abuse is now at epidemic levels in this and other states.
Ending the epidemic will require not just attention to all these issues, but also a fundamental change in the way the medical culture deals with pain.
Orr is haunted by a quote from her son: “Mom, you have to see – doctors are the biggest drug pushers in the country.”
She wants to change that.
“Teenagers are given oversupplies of Vicodin for things like wisdom teeth extractions. Surgical patients get more pills than they need when they leave the hospital. People take them all because they figure, ‘Gee, if a doctor prescribed it, it must be safe,’ ” she said. “Before they know it, they’re addicted.”
She points out, too, that this is an American problem.
“The U.S. is responsible for about 90 percent of the world’s prescribing of Vicodin,” she said.
In Britain, where she grew up, she recalls breaking her leg in three places when she was 14 years old. “My father was a doctor,” she said. “He gave me an aspirin.”
Americans are notorious for their pill-popping. Addiction is minimized and glamorized by shows such as “House,” featuring a doctor who pops Vicodin like Tic Tacs.
There are consequences to that, said Orr, who has taken her message to the medical community as a member of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.
Her son is never far from her thoughts. She writes: “Sometimes, I feel his presence and sense that he is encouraging me to tell others what I now know so that perhaps one life will be saved.”