My pain raged and roared. It only ebbed if I didn’t move. Which was impossible.
“They’re gonna give you morphine,” one of my companions said.
Another declared, “You’ll get addicted.”
Morphine? Really? Wasn’t that only in the movies? Wasn’t that nasty drug only as a last resort for the worst of the worst?
We heard the whirling blades chopping the air before we spotted the helicopter angling between the mountain ridges. It was searching for a landing spot near where I lay by the circle of rocks from last night’s now cold campfire. At mid-day, several hours earlier, I had busted my leg while exploring the area with a group of kids from the church I then served. On a weekend backpack, we had found an inviting slope of snow—really more an ice field in that part of the summer—and decided to butt-slide down its tempting expanse. As the mature associate pastor, I went first.
Until it was too late, I hadn’t noticed the granite outcropping poking through the snow.
Legs outstretched, derriere gliding across the slick surface, whooping with the thrill of gravity’s pull, I hit the exposed stone at full speed.
At that very specific moment, thirty years old, able to run for miles, able to hoist an overladen pack across the wilderness from dawn to dusk, I was in the best shape of my life.
And then I wasn’t.
My left leg snapped.
Because the other adult with our group hurried down the mountain to the trailhead to seek help, because a California Highway Patrol helicopter was dispatched as the day faded in the Sierra Nevada high country, because the pilot deftly maneuvered onto an uneven pocket meadow swaddled by stunted trees, I was successfully airlifted to the closest hospital.
Soon, I met morphine.
Boy oh boy, did it feel good. Though a Baby Boomer, a “child of the sixties,” I was also a straight-laced, church-going, introverted kid who never once had tried recreational drugs. Maybe a dentist had numbed my mouth. Maybe, after breaking my finger at a summer job, a doctor had given me a local anesthetic.
But a heavy hitter like morphine? No way! Wasn’t it heroin’s bad boy cousin?
And wasn’t one of those kids from the youth group, beside me when I was loaded into the helicopter, correct: “You’ll get addicted?”
I guarantee you, it takes the pain away.
I also guarantee that morphine, along with other medications used in hospice care, is often misunderstood.
The bad news about morphine:
- It is addictive.
- It can make you drowsy, at times unable to easily talk/listen.
- Many families have conflicts; medications like morphine for a loved one may trigger old or new debates.
- Some family members might steal the drugs for their own use/abuse. (See #1.)
- Since it’s often a caregiver rather than a hospice nurse who gives the dosages to the patient, some think a “last” dose was what “killed” their loved one.
- Regardless of any first or last dose, some believe morphine is what kills you.
The good news:
- Addiction doesn’t matter if you are dying.
- Pain is a fearsome thing.
- Morphine’s ability to reduce pain increases the possibility of some quality of life—communication, rest, staying home with loved ones—in the final weeks and months.
- It often can help with breathing. (Ask your nurse about this good news!)
- After training by hospice nurses, various forms of morphine can be given at home by family caregivers. (Of course, some think this is less-than-good news.)
Look . . . proof!
The bad news list is longer! Good loses!
Even as a non-medical part of the hospice team, I could identify more positive or negative aspects of morphine. Any nurse or physician (especially those involved with hospice or palliative care) would lengthen each side based on their education and professional experiences. Regardless of any rational pro and con discussions about morphine, it will inevitably trigger deep-felt reactions. Sadly, I also suspect it’s easier to argue about morphine than to discuss dying and death.
What if I compared morphine to water? All of the time, humans need water. But too much or too little can be a disaster for individuals or communities. The torture known as waterboarding takes “simple” water and transforms it into a frightening experience. Some of the time, especially nearing death, a dying human needs a medication like morphine. But too much or too little or if morphine is used in the wrong way . . .
My modest goals for Hospice Matters have always been to provide enough general information about hospice for caregivers, hospice patients, and grievers so that:
- Ignorance and fear are reduced by gaining knowledge.
- Those dying, caring for the dying, and grievers can ask better questions when seeking support from health care professionals.
In nearly everything I share about hospice, I consider repeating: it’s the disease that is killing you/your loved one. We clever humans are adept at ignoring the obvious. When a person becomes a hospice patient, several physicians have agreed that she or he has six months or less to live because of a fatal illness.
Isn’t it unfair to compare my singular encounter with morphine to a hospice patient’s situation?
Even as the medication alleviated my agony in the emergency room, I was scheming to rebuild my body. I was young. Respectfully fearful of an opioid’s addictive powers, I ceased pain-killers as quickly as possible. Six months after my left leg was broken by a rock in a very hard place, I was jogging around a track.
This, though, I humbly offer: don’t add to the suffering. Morphine, when used properly, helps hospice keep you or a loved one more comfortable.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by