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You'd think medicines – prescribed by a doctor, filled by a pharmacist – would be safe. You'd think the tablets in a carefully labeled amber bottle wouldn't turn your world upside down.
I thought that once too. Now, I know better.
Today, the National Safety Council released a video as part of its Stop Everyday Killers campaign. In filming the video, I shared the story of my son, Michael. He was diagnosed at age 12 with Crohn's Disease and went through various medications and surgeries before his doctors started to prescribe him opioid pain medications. He became addicted. He fought his addiction. He went through detox. But he remained tortured, and Michael took his own life in June 2011.
Since then, I have learned more than I want to know about the dangers of opioids. About 22,000 people die every year from prescription opioid overdoses – one every 24 minutes – and thousands more die from heroin or other drugs that are used when the prescriptions run out. Four out of five new heroin users started by misusing prescription painkillers. Today, drug overdose is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States, and in 2015, opioids were linked to nearly two-thirds of overdoses.
This has continued despite the fact that non-opioid pain relievers can be better than opioids in helping people manage acute pain and recover from injuries or surgeries.
When my son was going through his treatment, there was nobody there to warn me about what might happen. After his diagnosis, I learned everything I could about Crohn's Disease in order to save Michael. If I could go back, I wish I had learned as much about addiction. We couldn't imagine pills recommended by a doctor would result in addiction, and then death. But it happened to my son, and it's happened to tens of thousands of people since. While it's too late for them, it's not too late for people today to make choices that can save their lives.
Choose to talk to your doctor about whether you really need an opioid prescription. Don't make opioids the first choice to ease pain. Order warn-me labels to set a reminder for yourself. Order a pill-return envelope to take pills out of circulation. Consider physical therapy and other non-opioid treatments. Choose a few days of discomfort over the risk of addiction.
If I had asked these questions and made these choices, my son, Michael, would still be here. But instead a combination of opioids and innocence left my son dead and me grieving. I don't have those options anymore, but other people do. By being aware of the risks that come with every opioid prescription, they can follow a path different from mine.