The patient said he did not care about his stage IV ulcers. He refused antibiotics for chronic osteomyelitis until we gave him opiates. He denied all other non-opiate alternatives. “The patient has an opiate use disorder but also has pain,” said the pain and palliative doctor. In medicine, we try our best to explain all that a patient is experiencing with one diagnosis. A patient suffering from two different diseases as a diagnosis is frowned upon. But here was a seasoned doctor, speaking with his years of precious experience reflected in his white beard and even whiter apron, telling me that the patient I have barely started to present to him, had two diagnoses.
I had taken care of this patient for some days now. In my head, I would associate all the requests he makes, everything he says, and every single complaint he has, to his addiction. “I do not have an opiate use disorder, I have a pain problem!” said the patient as soon as “addiction” was mentioned. The doctor said, “I know you don’t think you have opiate use disorder.” I thought that was clearly mentioned to calm the patient down. Later I would be surprised to know that the doctor actually meant it.
He gave me an ‘overly simplistic heuristic’ that had helped him remember what patients with substance use disorder are going through. “The first time a patient takes a substance, he feels the intended high. The effect remains for a couple times more. As the effect due to the same dose decreases with subsequent exposure, the patient increases the dose to get the intended effect. This seemingly linear relationship is a tricky one. Soon the patient will depend on the substance only to feel okay. Which, let us remind ourselves, the patient felt before starting to take any substance. Hence, many patients with substance use disorder, claiming they do not do it for the high, they do it because they cannot tolerate “normal” without it. Substance use disorder is a complex topic and one that deserves much more effort and attention than is the scope of this conversation but I hope this ignited an enthusiasm to learn more, in you” That night I read some papers on opiate use disorder.
I sometimes wonder if I am not as sensitive to suffering as my patients are. I wonder if what they taught me about signal transduction in my first year of medical school holds true for day-to-day emotions like it held true for addiction’s pathophysiology. The more we are exposed, the more we desensitize. “Being emotional is understandable but unnecessary and unhelpful”, says Sherlock Holmes in one of his many palimpsests. Maybe I was trying to objectively look at this patient of mine. So much so that it did not occur to me that the patient had stage IV ulcers. All I heard was a cry for the high, which, mistake not, was there. But there was something more, something that was hidden to my objective eyes. In focusing my attention on the patient’s mindsores, I was ignoring his very physical and painful bedsores. I dare say Sherlock was wrong. Only emotions can drive passion. People who are so passionate about the pathways and mechanisms of addiction and people who are emotional about the patients’ problems are the ones who we rely upon to solve this tangled problem of pain and addiction. I appeal to you to acknowledge that this is a complex issue. That is the sole intention of this article. And that is the first step in trying to understand and hopefully help patients with multiple sores.