by Lynn Webster, MD
Most of us react the same way when we see a child with a skinned knee: we provide first aid and comfort and do so quickly. That’s easy. But when a child has serious pain, and can’t express it, we’re not sure how to help. Inevitably, we feel frustrated and helpless. Perhaps the child senses our powerlessness and reacts to it. Things feel bleak. And we feel alone.
This is exactly what’s happening in America today, but on a broader, more tragic scale. Chronic pain plagues 1 in 3 Americans and has more than a $600 billion drain on the economy. It’s become the healthcare crisis no one can, or wants to, talk about. Having treated many patients with chronic pain – often when they were at their most vulnerable – I continue to believe there is hope. Ultimately, it will require more research, better therapies, and improved policies. But it begins simply with showing everyone the humanity and urgency we give to a child in pain.
Toward that end, I have created a book (The Painful Truth, to be published in September of 2015) and a television documentary (also titled “The Painful Truth”) which will air on PBS between four and six weeks later).
The Painful Truth is a deeply intimate collection of stories about people living with disabling pain, their attempts to heal, and the challenges that we collectively face to help them survive and, ultimately, live meaningful lives. As a physician who has treated people with chronic pain for more than 30 years, I reveal in the book the difficulties that patients face dealing with chronic pain in a society which is often shamelessly prejudiced against those who are in most need of compassion and empathy. I share how those biases also affect those who treat patients with chronic pain.
Part One of the book introduces nine former patients of mine, illustrating their unique situations as their lives were suddenly and dramatically torn apart by the harsh realities of daily chronic pain. These personal stories are raw and truthful, and reveal the humanity of an often overlooked part of our society. Each story describes a person in pain’s journey to healing in the face of adverse societal barriers.
Part Two of The Painful Truth helps readers understand the uncomfortable realities faced by people in pain. They are often treated disrespectfully, ignored, and abandoned by those around them. It shares what society must do to bring dignity to people who represent the most prevalent public health problem in America. Finally, I initiate a bold series of calls to action about how we all can contribute to a cultural transformation that will change the attitudes and behaviors towards people in pain. The goal is to ensure that treatment of chronic pain is seen as a human right, and that an array of treatment options are available to readers on that inevitable day when that they, too, will seek relief from humankind’s primal enemy: pain.
My television documentary is a companion to the book. Through interviews with people in pain, I will share the realities of chronic pain visually and poignantly with viewers who, ultimately, can make a difference. The show will document the intimate, personal, and profound impact that pain has on patients’ lives. My hope is to engage readers and viewers emotionally, and motivate them to be part of a grassroots movement for change.
Dr. Lynn R. Webster, MD, is the immediate past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, Vice President of Scientific Affairs at PRA Health Sciences, and author of a forthcoming book, The Painful Truth, and producer of a PBS TV documentary by the same name. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. He lives in Salt Lake City.