In her teens, Casey stayed busy with sports. But severe muscle cramps landed her in the hospital, where she was prescribed opioids for her pain. An emergency room doctor realized she was addicted and said not to come back––leaving her and her family to deal with the problem on their own.
How a Teenager's Opioid Prescription Led to Dependence
Published: November 6, 2018
Kenneth: How’s your chemistry class coming?
Casey: Its fine.
Kenneth: What are you guys working on in there?
Casey: Like, compounds. Chemical compounds. You have to mix, like, iron with like, ammonia...
Onscreen: Casey leads a protected life. Her father Ken watched drugs destroy his brothers, so he
moved his daughters out of the city and put them in private schools. In her teens, Casey stayed busy with sports. But she began having severe muscle cramps.
Casey: I remember one game in particular, all of sudden I just started feeling really shaky and then everything just started hurting. My legs and my arms just cramped up really tight.
Kenneth: She fell straight to the ground screaming in pain. It took me and one of her coaches to pick her up, put her in a car, rush her out to Children's.
Anna Lembke: They did a million and one tests, and then they found, you know, an ovarian mass. Well, an ovarian mass in a teen, that's scary, so then that required more medical work up in order to discover that the mass was, in fact, benign, but then, by then, you know, she had a surgery, it had been removed, and through all of this, she received copious opioids.
Casey: Once I left the hospital, I noticed that I was still having a lot of pain, but it was nowhere near the surgery sites that they had operated on.
Kenneth: We couldn't even touch her, she was in so much pain. She described it as, it felt like her bones were being ripped out of her body.
Lembke: Now, the pain she was experiencing was opioid withdrawal pain, but they didn't know. So they whisk her back to the emergency room. What could this possibly be? She's got terrible pain. And essentially, every single time, the solution was prescribe more opioids.
Casey: But after a while they didn't help as much anymore so I started taking way too many.
Lembke: Until at one point, an emergency room doctor realized she's addicted, and what was his reaction? He basically went out and he shamed them, and he's like, "Your daughter's addicted. We never want to see her here again."
Onscreen: Stunned, Ken drove home, with no idea of how to help his daughter. Casey was now an opioid refugee, battling cravings and withdrawal on her own.
Kenneth: We just felt powerless. And as a dad, I'm supposed to be her protector and I just felt like I had, I had completely let her down, that, I just didn’t know what, what to do anymore.
Lembke: There was implicit trust. If this medication were dangerous, they would tell me. As long as we take it just as prescribed, everything is going to be okay. And that is totally untrue. Casey’s a great example. Now, given her family history of addiction, she probably had an underlying vulnerability, right? But what made her addicted was the opioids that she received from her doctor.
Onscreen: It's been 10 years since Casey was hospitalized. Casey is now on Suboxone and studying to become a doctor. Her muscle cramps have been diagnosed as fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. To control her symptoms, she takes eleven other medications. But none are opioids.
Casey: Recovery is definitely possible. It might take years or months or however long but it is possible.
Written, Directed, and Produced by: Sarah Holt
Camera: Stephen McCarthy
Sound: Stephen Schmidt
Edited by: Jaro Savol
Digital Producer: Arlo Perez
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2018