While Steven Heller is vacationing in Herald Square between Christmas and New Year’s Day, he has agreed to reprise a few of his favorite recent posts—such as this one from Aug. 24. The Daily Heller will return on Jan. 2.
I had reached my limit of intolerable pain. But I felt that I had two little devils telling me what to do: the drug makers and the physicians. Who do you trust? Netflix had the answer.
I spent most of this summer recovering from surgery, which had an unintended consequence—a daily routine of binging on Netflix shows. Of the many, “Painkiller“—a fictionalized miniseries about the infamous Sackler family and their factual callous role in the opioid drug epidemic—was the most relevant and upsetting.
Medicine is amazing, in general. The doctors, healthcare workers and surgeons who relieve illness and reduce or eliminate pain are living saints. But in order to make their miracles happen, a lot depends on the drugs available to them. This is where ethics and opportunity cavort in an impure world made vivid by the splendid performances in “Painkiller.”
The Sacklers, who bought Purdue Pharma to manufacture a high-intensity drug to reduce and eliminate pain, understood from the outset that without restraints the ingredients could become addictive. As mandated by law, they put warnings in the ultra-fine print—a style of typography that serves as a roadblock to comprehension, even among the most acute readers. Then they tapped into the pseudo-science of marketing and propaganda to sell their wares—not to the average consumer, but to trusted medical professionals. “Painkiller” makes vividly clear how branding, graphic and product design and other mass communication techniques fit so easily into a strategy designed to sell as many milligrams of the medication as possible. If everybody does their job well, from the chemists, salespeople, clinicians and pharmacists, then good results can occur. The Netflix series reveals how greed and corruption can produce unwanted but far from unintended consequences.
In the Summer of the Barbie (or anti-Barbie, whichever way you view it) revelations, “Painkiller” exposes the corporate armies of pert, sexy Barbies who make their living pushing OxyContin onto M.D. dealers and into their patients. Many follow the oath of the profession—to do no harm—but others are sucked into a vortex of behavior that harms under the guise of help.
Dr. Richard Sackler, played by Matthew Broderick, announces that his pharmaceutical company has one goal: to turn PAIN into PLEASURE. There is a fine line between relieving crippling pain and enabling pleasure to become supreme. I am not against medicinal or recreation drugs. I need the former and stay away from the latter. Pain is debilitating and demands relief. But the drugs on the market, each trying to outdo their competitors in terms of time and duration and strength, are a tricky balance.
When I was in the hospital I consumed dozens of meds under strict supervision. I trusted the experts. When I was released, I was routinely proscribed OxyContin, among other pain relievers. Thousands of patients receive controlled dosages each day with positive results. I decided not to take it. Too much bad publicity preceded it. And “Painkiller” was the rotten cherry on the cake. One of my doctors, anticipating post-op pain (and possible agony) advised, “Don’t be a hero!” But I was not taking any chances. The propaganda for the drug was incredibly persuasive, the propagandists were not. Fortunately for me, moderate pain relief was just enough.