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Lindsay Karson, CMS '22, on Developing Empathy

A friend’s struggle with addiction deepens a medical student’s capacity for caring.

By Lindsay Karson, CMS ’22

The tragedy of opioid addiction is in the news every day as well as in the personal lives of those we know. A friend I have known since grade school started drinking pretty heavily in high school. “Alison” also used marijuana. Then, she started doing cocaine and LSD. I have met her friends who used cocaine, heroin and their mother’s painkillers. A few have died from fentanyl-laced cocaine and heroin overdoses.

I worry about Alison, who has lived in her car at times. My family tried to make life easier for her. My aunt and uncle invited her into their home. We all encouraged her to work, save for some junior college classes and stop using drugs. She never could or would.

I asked Alison to speak during our Chicago Medical School’s grand rounds, “Exploring the Opioid Crisis.” A few of her friends also wanted to tell their stories. I hoped that learning about opioids and hearing how dangerous they are might help Alison want to cut back. But her tolerance levels had built up, and she craved higher doses. Addiction can be so powerful, withdrawal symptoms so excruciating that it can feel impossible to break the bonds, especially when you lack support.

I have noticed a lack of empathy for those addicted to opioids.
Lindsay Karson, CMS '22

It shocks me that pharmacists, politicians and physicians yielded to claims about the safety of painkillers even when they saw the terrible effects the drugs had on patients and communities. It surprises me when medical students and professionals mention using drugs and say it’s not a big deal. I have noticed a lack of empathy for those addicted to opioids. It isn’t always easy to act with sensitivity, but practitioners should try to understand their patients’ struggles and hardships.  

As medical students, we have to think for ourselves, learn to listen and learn to practice evidence-based medicine. As physicians, we must say “No” when it is the right thing to do, focus on improved pain management and monitor prescriptions to stop overprescribing. Prevention programs for families and in schools can help build resilience and lower the risk for substance abuse in teens and adults. Communities have come together to fight addiction. RFU partners with the Lake County Opioid Initiative, which is working to develop, implement and sustain a multi-pronged strategy to prevent addiction, overdose and deaths associated with prescription and illicit opioids. The initiative helped nearly 400 individuals access treatment between June 2016 and May 2018.

While medications such as naltrexone and counseling and support groups can help fight addiction and save lives, I have learned that it is better to prevent addiction than to wait to address it until damage has been done. As a future physician, I will keep thinking about Alison and her friends and the millions of others who, with the right support and care, might have avoided falling into addiction. 

Posted November 27, 2019
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