'I was a drug addict': Nun struck down by dependency as opioid crisis looms
Sister Mary Lynne Cochrane, a member of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict in Sydney, is not your usual ‘drug addict’, but she knows exactly what addiction feels like.
For nearly 40 years, Sister Cochrane dealt with chronic pain after her undiagnosed arthritis resulted in three back surgeries, a bone transplant and the replacement of nearly all of her major joints. She was in constant, debilitating pain.
For the 52-year-old, her decades long addiction to pain killers reached a point five years ago where she couldn’t take dealing with the side-effects anymore. A concoction of morphine, endone, oxycontin and mersyndol over the years left her depressed, sluggish and unable to continue working.
“Opioids in the beginning helped, they took the pain away, but in a sense, they were like chronic pain themselves,” she told nine.com.au.
Sister Cochrane has issued a warning about using opioids to treat pain long term, as a report suggests Australia could be threatened by an opioid epidemic to rival America.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s first comprehensive report on opioid use and harm in Australia paints a picture of how pain is being treated in this country.
The figures out today, show 3.1 million Australians are being prescribed opioids for pain relief, with only 111,200 using opioids either non-medically or illegally.
An opioid is an umbrella term for a category of drugs that ranges from common prescription painkillers such as oxycodone, morphine and fentanyl, to street drugs such as heroin. They are all highly addictive.
On October 26 2017, the Trump Administration declared the opioid crisis in America a National Public Health Emergency.
During 2017, there were 49,000 overdose deaths in the US linked to an opioid.
“I always had to make sure I had enough pain-killers in the house. If I didn’t have enough, I would panic at the thought of running out and not being able to relieve the pain...I was addicted,” Sister Cochrane told 9News.com.au.
Her story is not uncommon, in fact one in five Australians live with chronic pain, including adolescents and children, according to Pain Australia.
“Opioids have become the go to treatment for pain relief. They are cheap, and they are easy to manage – it’s popping a pill,” Pain Australia CEO Carol Bennett told 9News.com.au.
“They are for acute management of pain. We are treating them as a first and only line of defence for pain and once people become dependent it leads to all sorts of other issues,” explained Ms Bennett.
“Nearly everyone who will have tried these kinds of medications, have become dependent on them,” she said.
Sister Cochrane can attest to that.
Her life changed following a third back surgery, when she was again prescribed a new drug to dull the pain.
“I thought, are they just going to keep adding drugs?” said Sister Cochrane.
From here began her journey off opioid reliance, and onto alternative pain management, and she enlisted the help of a physiotherapist, psychologist, and nutritionist.
But Sister Cochrane is one of the lucky ones: most living with chronic pain are still reliant, and more often than not, addicted to opioids.
In Australia, the figures are heading in an alarming upwards trajectory, and the AIHW report shows pharmaceutical opioids are more likely than heroin to be involved in opioid deaths and hospitalisations.
Every day in Australia nearly 150 hospitalisations and 14 emergency presentations involve opioid harm. In 2016, the number of deaths reached a peak at 1119, a 62 percent rise since 2007.
Pain Australia says an increase in the number of people suffering from chronic pain is partnering with the increase in opioid use and creating the ‘perfect storm’ for an epidemic here.
“It’s alarming, 3.1 million [on prescription opioids] is a staggering figure, at some point we need to stop and say this is a crisis. It’s not just people wanting to go and get high – it’s underpinned by people going to their GP with pain,” said Ms Bennett.
“The decision to put someone on an opioid regime is not a decision made lightly,” said AMA President Dr Tony Bartone.
“But because of the rise in indications [of chronic pain], there is an intense demand on the desire to seek an instant immediate method of control.
“That and the available options are few and far between,” he added.
Pain Australia believes the answer to curbing the problem is a combination of greater awareness, leadership, better research and access to multi-disciplinary treatment, which is the approach Sister Cochrane is now taking.
The peak body has put a national action plan to the government, and is waiting on feedback.
“We need to fix the underlying problem in this opioid crisis, otherwise we will see these figures continue,” warned Ms Bennett.
Dr Bartone agrees with a multi-modality approach, but stresses that a GP needs to be at the helm, organising and coordinating.
He does agree that something needs to happen fast.
“My worry is, there was such a backlash when codeine was taken off the shelves. If we struggle with the first step how are we going to implement a multi-stage program,” he told nine.com.au.
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