THE BLOG
07/10/2013 02:37 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

The American Scream: Women and Painkillers

My youngest daughter is 6 years old. She's an energetic, precociously intelligent kid who still runs into my arms when I enter a room, and I love her as much as the day is long. Which is why I was alarmed when, after giving me a ferocious hug one morning, my little girl turned to my wife and said, "Can I have my gummy pill now?"

Ours has become a pill-popping nation. My daughter doesn't know this, but the company that creatively found a way to market their pills to children (by disguising them as tasty candy treats) is actually grooming her to be okay with ingesting pills to solve her problems. Which, again, is alarming because -- according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) -- about 18 women die every day of a prescription painkiller overdose in the U.S. alone, which makes prescription painkiller overdoses a silent epidemic in America today.

Now, when we talk about prescription painkillers, we're talking about opiate or narcotic pain medications like Vicodin, Oxycotin, Codeine or Methadone, which begs the question, "Why are morgues filling up with housewives who are overdosing on such powerful drugs?" Michelle Leonhart, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, drew the first red flag way back in 2011 when she went after the pain clinics and pain mills in Florida who, at the time, were making it ridiculously easy for anyone to acquire these Schedule II narcotics and abuse them. "Prescription drug abuse is our country's fastest growing drug problem," she once said -- and she was right.

Her thoughts were mirrored in a Los Angeles Times article a week ago where Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, reported that, "These are dangerous medications, and they should be reserved for situations like severe cancer pain." His position was that doctors are relying on powerful drugs to treat chronic pain when physical therapy, exercise and other remedies would be safer and in many cases more effective. Which, unfortunately brings us one step closer to the real problem women are facing here in America.

The doctors aren't thinking things through.

Now, I know there are going to be people out there who are going to argue that medical professionals DO know what they're doing -- it's why they endured years of med school and suffered through calamitous internships at hospitals before hanging their shingles and opening their private practices -- but, if we're not going to take the doctors to task, then who exactly is responsible? The victims?

I don't think so.

In any epidemic, the first course of action is to identify Patient Zero: Find the first person to contract the illness and you're that much closer to finding a cure. So let's take a hypothetical visit to the morgue and track our way backwards. We have a housewife on a slab (one of the almost half million women to die this year alone from pain killer overdoses) and let's see where the trail leads.

Back at home, just yesterday, her medicine cabinet's shelves were lined with prescription bottles. She hurriedly pops a Xanax to help her deal with the anxiety of having to go grocery shopping and a couple of Oxycotins to help her with her "bad knee" (the knee has long since healed; she doesn't know this, but she is physically addicted to opiates and doesn't "feel well" when she hasn't taken them). She flushes and leaves the bathroom and her 16-year-old daughter enters after her, in a hurry to get to school. She, too, raids the medicine cabinet and "borrows" some of mom's Schedule II narcotics so that she and a few of her friends can use them recreationally after school. Her daughter drops one of the pill bottles into the sink and we see it for the first time: The Doctor's Name.

And this is the interesting part for me because this wasn't just ANY doctor; this doctor was CHOSEN. Women today can be very sophisticated "doctor shoppers." They can ferret out who to turn to in order to get the drugs they need. A doctor who won't prescribe the powerful medications stands a good chance of losing a patient which, in turn, means losing a revenue stream. They're here to help us and make us better, but they're also here to earn a living, and the prescription pad is power.

Our housewife, however, is in trouble. Her opiate receptors are becoming more and more tolerant to the drugs she's taking, and so she's having to take more and more of them to feel any effect. She's slurring her words at the checkout line and has trouble putting the key in the car door. Her opiate receptors are more tolerant but her body is not. Her breathing is shallow... her heart rate is slow as molasses...

She gets into the car and realizes that she'd feel a lot better if she could just close her eyes for a moment before going on her way.

Only, this time, she never wakes up.

The cavalier or lax attitude that medical professionals have when dispensing these drugs is frightening to me, if only because the numbers concerning female overdoses are rising so dramatically. The idea that women are "doctor shopping" doesn't surprise me because they aren't stupid; why go to some pusher or drug dealer in a dark alley to get their opiates (and, for those of you who don't know this, heroin is an opiate) when they can go to a fancy office and get their drugs from someone in a lab coat? I mean, it's just plain common sense: These medical professionals need to be reprimanded and stopped before they can do any more damage.

Because my children mean the world to me. The simple fact of the matter is that I would kill or die for them without hesitation. But I shouldn't have to in order to make it safe for them to go to the doctor's office and get help. And, although I think it's tragic that this epidemic is what's causing legislators to stand up and do something about the shocking numbers of women who are overdosing on prescription drugs, I am also someone who is grateful that it is happening within my lifetime.

My daughter runs to me and joyfully hugs me when I walk into a room. And, I want her to still be doing that, years from now, on her wedding day, because she is my baby and I love her.

And because the doctor who would have prescribed her pain killers for "tennis elbow" will have long since have had his license taken away.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

For more by Dr. Howard Samuels, click here.

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