David Doan knew the pain medication he was taking was killing him. He tried to stop. He tried to find an alternative.
But when he asked his doctors to stop prescribing him oxycodone and fentanyl – when Doan asked them to find another way to treat his pain – those doctors wouldn’t listen. The pills kept coming.
Doan was awake and breathing when he fell to the ground and later died at 2:50 a.m. in the emergency room at Community Howard Regional Health May 5, 2017.
The coroner ruled his death an accidental overdose caused by fentanyl, oxycodone and Xanax. His name was added to the list of 43 other people who died of an overdose in 2017, during the deadliest year in Howard County’s history.
But Doan wasn’t an addict trying to get high. He was in pain. Real pain.
Doan’s wife, Betty, said her husband had been taking the three medications that ended up killing him since around 2005, when he suffered a serious back injury while working a construction job.
The workers' compensation that helped cover his medical bills forced him to get a surgery that only made the pain worse, Betty said. The doctors’ only solution was to give him more pills.
Over time, Doan found himself in a terrible situation. He knew his body had become immune to the medication, but he had become savagely addicted to the pills. The medication fed his addiction, but didn’t take away his back pain.
“He’d tell you he was addicted to it. And he’d tell you he was immune to it,” Betty said. “He had to have it. His body would cramp if he didn’t have it. And he was still having the pain.”
Betty said her husband repeatedly told doctors about his addiction and begged them to find a solution – to find another way to treat his pain.
“We asked why they were doing this,” Betty said. “They don’t give you answers. If you question them, they just get mad. What are you going to do?”
So Doan took matters into his own hands. He started calling drug rehabilitation centers to get help. They all turned him away.
“They told him when you come to rehab, it’s so that you can stop taking medication permanently,” said Tiffany Osborne, Doan’s daughter. “They knew he would have to go back on the medication, so they would not take him and let him come off it.”
At the end of his life, Doan was stuck with his addiction and stuck with his pain. His daughter, Stella Doan, said it was agonizing to see her father so helpless.
“During a conversation with my dad about his doctor, he said, ‘Ya know, sis, I just wish they would have asked before they made me a guinea pig,’” Stella said. “‘I didn’t pick this for me. They chose for me and now they won’t help me. I don’t know what to do.’”
Eventually, the years of heavy narcotic use took a toll on Doan’s body. Betty said her husband suffered from a swollen heart, liver damage and kidney problems. With his organs failing, his body couldn’t even process the drugs he was taking, leading to a toxic buildup of fentanyl in his system that contributed to his death.
Stella said her father wasn’t a drug user. He wasn’t a junkie. He was a victim of a health care system addicted to addiction.
“My father was a victim of Big Pharma and the doctors who would rather have money in their pockets than to find another route to help him treat his chronic back pain,” she said.
Betty said since her husband’s death, she’s seen some positive changes in some doctors' prescribing behavior as physicians become more aware of the dangers of prescribing opioid narcotics.
But, she said, there are “still doctors out there who aren’t going to pay attention and do what they want. Some just don’t care.”
Her advice to others suffering from chronic pain? Take matters into your own hands.
“I want people to learn that anyone with chronic pain needs to say no to fentanyl patches. They don’t work. They don’t stay on. Realize that you have to live with some pain. You can’t erase your pain. Ease your pain with your meds, but don’t overtake them.”
Osborne agreed. She said if doctors refuse to look for pain-management alternatives besides prescribing pills, go somewhere else. “Make them help you,” she said.
In the end, Osborne said, she hopes her father’s death teaches people not to judge those who are addicted to pills, because there’s a good chance they might not be looking for a high. They just might be looking for help.
“Don’t judge them,” she said. “Don’t tell people they don’t deserve to get Narcan and they deserve to die. That’s not fair to their family members. Everyone has someone who loves them and people they loved. Every life is worth saving.”