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A year after using cannabis to get off opioids, a retired physician is drug-free and content | Perspective

"How did this happen?" he asked himself "I am a board-certified physician. Now, I’m a drug addict struggling to stay alive."

Seen here in his Middletown, Del., Thompson today is "happy, healthy, and living without opioids."
Seen here in his Middletown, Del., Thompson today is "happy, healthy, and living without opioids."Read moreEd Hille

Independence Day, 1969, changed my life. That day catapulted me from the sunny world of an optimistic, newly minted physician into a hell I could never have foreseen.

A horrific traffic accident totaled my car and fractured my back. My doctor predicted that I had dodged immediate surgery thanks to my youth and strong physical condition, but that in the years to come, I would meet the knife.

Over the next years, I practiced my profession, radiology. But one day in 2010, early in my retirement, excruciating left-leg pain signaled the doctor’s prophecy had come true. With age, weight bearing placed pressure on my sciatic nerves. Rather than risk permanent nerve damage, I consented to my first surgery, in 2011.

A neurosurgeon performed a nine-hour operation on my spine. That procedure failed, leaving me in more pain than before. A pain doctor prescribed oxycodone. Eight months later, I was no better, and consented to two more surgeries.

Over the next three years, my pain worsened. My pain doctor added a second narcotic, fentanyl, to the oxycodone. The opioids kept my pain in check, but seized control of my mind. I became withdrawn and paranoid. My thinking became muddled, and I was always depressed.

How could this have happened to me? I anguished. I am a board-certified physician. Now, I’m a drug addict struggling to stay alive.

I rarely went out, but reluctantly attended a family wedding in New York. While there, as I went to change my fentanyl skin patch, I discovered the box was empty. I had brought the wrong package. The full box was still at home.

I freaked. Impatient for its regular fix, my body revolted. Severe muscle aches, exploding headache, nausea, sweating, hot and cold flashes, chronic fatigue, and worsening low-back pain wracked my body.

I called my pain specialist. He wasn’t much help, only cautioning that if I were going to stop taking narcotics by using medical marijuana, as I proposed, do it gradually over a one-year period. Desperate to kick the habit, I ignored his advice. Thirty days later with cannabis, sheer determination, and a lot of prayer, I was completely off both the oxycodone and fentanyl. But for the next year, I hurt so bad I could hardly get out of bed. Always exhausted, I couldn’t sleep.

Struggling to recognize the slightest hints of improvement, I kept a daily log that has grown into the memoir I am writing about escaping the stranglehold of prescription narcotics.

Today, almost a year and a half after beginning to free myself of opioids, I’m improved but not completely pain-free. Standing for any length of time and walking for more than one mile produce discomfort in my back. My energy remains low. So I minimize standing, limit walking, and rest as necessary.

Still, I’m better now than I could have imagined. I take an occasional ibuprofen but no longer require opioids. It seems that my body’s own defenses, previously suppressed by the narcotics, have risen to the occasion.

I no longer need marijuana. But I credit cannabis with letting me discover the real source of my suffering. It was not my original injury or multiple surgeries. It was the superimposed effects of the opioids.

I no longer have to arrange my life around addictive substances or suffer on the edge of withdrawal. I no longer feel secretive and ashamed, or fearful that I could run out of the prescription opioids I need to avoid the pain of withdrawal. I am no longer haunted by the terror of possibly having to resort to the streets for my drugs because the doctor will no long prescribe.

Drug-free, I now am content.

To be clear, my personal experience arises from the perspective of a patient, not in this case, as a physician. I offer no assurance that what worked for me will work for others. Years of practicing medicine have taught me that for many burdened with horrible medical conditions, around-the-clock opioids are an unfortunate necessity.

For six years, I feared I was one such person. My particular experience has taught me that with grit, perseverance, strong spiritual faith, and medical marijuana, I was able to unshackle myself from what I thought would be an irrevocable life sentence of narcotic dependence.

Today, I am happy, healthy, and living without prescription opioids. Though retired, I am once again the doctor and no longer a patient. Today, as on that beautiful July Fourth before my life-changing accident so many years ago, I am free.

Noble L. Thompson Jr., M.D., is a retired, board-certified neuroradiologist who practiced mostly in the Philadelphia area. He is the author of “Never Give Up: My Struggle to Become a Doctor.”