I once found myself entrapped by a patient as much as she felt trapped by me. It was the summer of 2001, and I was running a small internal-medicine clinic, supervised by a preceptor, on the fourth floor of a perpetually chilly Boston building. Most of the work involved routine primary care — the management of diabetes, blood pressure and heart disease. It was soft, gratifying labor; the night before a new patient's visit, I would usually sift through any notes that were sent ahead and jot my remarks in the margins. The patient's name was S., I learned. She had made four visits to the emergency room complaining of headaches. Three of those times she left with small stashes of opioids — Vicodin, Percocet, oxycodone. Finally, the E.R. doctors refused to give her pain medicines unless she had a primary-care physician. There was an open slot in my clinic the next morning, and the computer had randomly assigned her to see me.
We were living, then, in what might be called the opioid pre-epidemic; the barometer had begun to dip, but few suspected the ferocity of the coming storm. Pain, we had been told as medical residents, was being poorly treated (true) — and pharmaceutical companies were trying to convince us daily that a combination of long- and short-acting opioids could cure virtually any form of it with minimal side effects (not true). The cavalier overprescription of addictive drugs was bewildering: After a tooth extraction, I emerged from an oral surgeon's office with a two-week supply of Percocet.