When Bob Mason decided to end his life with a self-inflicted gunshot, his pain helped him pull the trigger.
Mason died in January. He was 67 years old. His daughter, Shane Mieski, says her father had been without pain-killing drugs for about a week when he died.
That certainly didn’t take long: just one week from living his life to not longer being able to tolerate it.
That’s what it’s like to have effective pain treatment stopped.
“For the last couple weeks up until Bob passed away, there were a lot of tears everyday on the phone,” Mieski said
One of Mason’s doctors was Mark Ibsen in Helena. Ibsen shut his practice last winter, after being investigated by the Montana Board of Medical Examiners for over-prescribing the powerful and addictive painkillers known as opioids.
That meant Bob Mason lost his access to the painkillers he needed to make his life bearable.
Mieski says she remembers her dad talking about seeing another doctor in Butte to get relief. But he was in too much pain to make the trip from his home in Helena.
“An hour down and an hour back, it was too painful,” Mieski said. “He would wince every time he sat down, and cringe, and I swear I could hear his back creaking every time he stood up.”
In March a group of chronic pain patients in Montana presented what they call a “pain patient’s bill of rights” to the state legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. Terri Anderson from Hamilton was one of them.
“On behalf of all those who suffer pain, and Robert Mason, who took his own life because of uncontrolled pain,” Anderson said to the committee. “We are a diverse group of patients,” she said. “We come from all walks of life, and we believe the treatment of our chronic intractable pain is a fundamental human right.”
Anderson says the pain patient’s bill of rights is based on similar legislation in California. Lawmakers there found that the state has a right and duty to control the illegal use of opioid drugs. They also found that for some patients, inadequate treatment of acute and chronic pain is a significant health problem.
California’s pain patient’s bill of rights allows a patient to request or reject the use of any or all techniques in order to relieve their pain.
“Opioids were given out like jelly beans,” Pain Patient Advocate Terri Anderson acknowledges. “People did become addicted, and [there were] too many deaths from these prescribing habits. But the pendulum has swung, and the legitimate pain patients cannot get their medications. Especially in Montana.”
“The last week or two has just been unbearable,” he said. “We hardly want to take the phones, [because of] the number of people calling that want to come here.”
To an untrained doctor, Tennant says, addicts and pain patients can look similar. He says education in the medical community about pain management and opioids is almost nonexistent.
“I know nationally there is a big move to regulate these medicines, and have tighter regulations, and right now legislation is being considered,” Metel says. “A lot of us are proposing [that] education is really what we need to do.
“Drug addiction is a problem, it is a very serious problem,” Caferro says. “What I don’t want to see happen, and what has been identified as a problem, is that people who really need access to medication get swept up in the drug addiction.
You have drug addiction, and you have people who need medicine for their pain management. Those are two separate issues.”
Bob Mason, the pain patient from Helena who committed suicide, moved to Montana to try to get relief in 2012. He got a spinal cord stimulator implant, but afterwards, still needed opioids.
His daughter, Shane Mieski, said he didn’t like the drugs, but there were no other options.
“The opioids, they cause other issues,” Mieski says. “Your body starts to feel slow and a little overwhelmed, as he would mention. You don’t feel super sharp and on top of your game.
At a certain point, there was nothing more that doctors could do for his type of pain. So, as a 67-year-old person, I think that you should try to enjoy any quality of life you get. And if that means taking medication to function, give them what they need.”
The American Academy of Pain Medicine says a hundred million Americans suffer with chronic pain. That’s more than the number of people with diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined.