I thought I already understood what I needed to know about the opioid epidemic in our country. I had skimmed news articles covering the pharmaceutical industry’s deceptions and the addiction crisis in rural America, and I was as appalled as anyone at the Sackler family’s profiteering at the expense of so many. But somehow it seemed less than relevant to dig deeply –I didn’t know anyone suffering from an opioid addiction personally and from my cursory attention to article headlines, it seemed like the US justice system was starting to win on the issue. So, when my sister-in-law suggested I read Empire of Pain, a book-length account of the Sackler family legacy, I had my doubts about whether I would care enough to wade through an entire tome. I downloaded a sample onto my Kindle anyhow and was hooked immediately. Within a few days, I had devoured the book, even more aghast at the family’s callousness. I also felt a bit ashamed that I thought my shallow understanding based on news skimming was adequate to the relevance of the issues involved.
About a week later, kids still home from college, our family decided to watch Dopesick, a mini-series that approaches the same crisis from the angle of the victims. At this point, I knew a lot about how the Sackler family falsely marketed OxyContin, about how the FDA enabled the drug’s wide-spread usage, and about the various legal battles fought against Purdue Pharma and other pharmaceutical companies, but I had not really understood how the drug impacted communities. I did not understand how it destroyed families by creating dependencies and causing overdoses. Again, I was reminded of how easy it is to read a few news stories and decide you know enough; in this case, I had not truly understood the implications for individuals either.
This may seem like a disconnect, but I spent a significant amount of 2021 working with three women applying to college who are not from highly resourced families. In reading essays about their experiences and discussing their applications, I thought I had arrived at a decent understanding of what they manage through in their daily lives. Two lost mothers at early ages, one to an addiction issue. One is undocumented and couldn’t expect any federal funding for college. One had to ask for an extension on her FASFA application because her father’s Green Card had not yet arrived, even though they had legally immigrated several months beforehand. One was unable to complete two AP tests which might have afforded her college credit because her teacher had forgotten to order the exams. Despite these stories, in December, a couple of their experiences made me realize their essays were a lot like skimming a news story. I still didn’t really understand and would need to keep learning.
The first occurred when I had not heard from one of my advisees for a couple of weeks. That was unusual, as she had always been good about meeting deadlines, and we only had a few weeks before the rest of her applications were due. When I finally heard from her, she explained her computer power cord had malfunctioned, and so she was sharing one with her younger sister who used it in school all day. I had not heard from her because between work and the lack of battery power, she had unable to complete any more supplementary essays. I resisted the urge to Fed Ex her a new cord overnight; it felt like a breach of our relationship somehow. Sadly, it ended up taking her another week to procure a new power cord. I still am unsure if this was because she had to work and save to earn enough money to buy it or could not afford fast shipping.
Another of my advisees had written over and over about wanting to be a biomedical engineer. I had decided months earlier to send her Walter Issacson’s latest book on CRISPR, as it relays the story of a female scientist who has been instrumental in advancing this work, and when I had mentioned the concept of CRISPR to her early on in our relationship, she was unaware of it and seemed excited to learn more. I finished the book myself in late November and shipped it from Amazon as a holiday gift. A few days later, she texted me that she absolutely loved my surprise. She also happened to mention that no one had ever given her a science book before. It struck me that, despite her incredible initiative and academic achievements, no one had fed her ambition – and also that I buy and give books pretty much whenever I feel the urge.
This will seem like another disconnect, but right after our family finished watching Dopesick, we tuned into that evening’s national newscast and heard once again about how many hospitalized with COVID are unvaccinated. For the first time, I didn’t rush to condemn, instead wondering aloud if many of those who are afraid of the vaccine may be from communities that suffered and still suffer from the opioid epidemic. For the first time, I could empathize that someone whose family or friends took opioids upon the recommendation of their physician (who in turn prescribed an opioid based on FDA approvals and medical association-based scientific studies that were secretly funded by the Sackler family) might question the safety and the efficacy of a COVID vaccine. If the FDA and doctors thought OxyContin was a good treatment choice for pain, why trust these institutions’ recommendations on COVID.
And in the past weeks, as the CDC has waffled on how many days to quarantine and whether we should be taking booster shots and as our government has failed to foresee the need to stockpile tests or to invest in therapeutic development at as high a rate as vaccines, I find myself questioning these institutions too. I don’t doubt the efficacy or the safety of the vaccines – our whole family is triple boosted – but I do feel a lot more empathy for anyone unvaccinated whose rationale for their choice is based on a horrifying opioid-based experience that was offered up by our national government and the medical community.
As I begin a new year, what I will take from Empire of Pain, Dopesick and my ongoing interactions with my adoptee college applicants is that I should rush less often to think I know enough. I have a few New Year’s resolutions so far –ones like: drink less, exercise more rationally, but these are all about me. In my first entry of 2022, I’m going to add one more and this one is about how I interact with our larger world: look deeper, make fewer judgements, and do my best to have more empathy, as what I think I know probably isn’t the whole story a lot of the time.