By Pat Anson, Editor
“I’ve been thinking about ending my life if I don’t get the help I need.”
Those are chilling words for anyone to hear. And in the last two years of her life, Sherri Little said them often to family, friends and doctors. After decades of struggling with chronic pain from fibromyalgia, inflammatory bowel disease, severe colitis and other conditions, the 53-year old California woman was desperate and depressed when she checked into the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on July 3, 2015.
What happened over the next four days is not entirely clear, but we know that Sherri took her own life. Her body was found in the bathtub of a hotel room across the street from Cedars-Sinai on the morning of July 7, with several prescription bottles and an empty bottle of wine nearby. Sherri had been sober for many years.
“I attest this is the first drink of alcohol in 16 years -- just to give me the courage to end my life alone,” Sherri wrote in a suicide note found in her hotel room.
“Several documents found inside the location underscored her pain, suffering and suicidal ideations,” reads the coroner’s report. “A check of the decedent’s laptop also contained a pictured document written by the decedent titled ‘Why I Killed Myself’ by Sherri Little.”
We’re telling Sherri’s story --- with the help of her mother, friends and patient advocate – not in a ghoulish attempt to recreate her final days, but to lend a name, a face and a voice to the untold number of chronic pain sufferers who have also been overwhelmed by pain, depression and loss of hope. Like Sherri, many felt abandoned by a healthcare system that was unwilling or simply unable to treat them.
Over 42,000 Americans killed themselves in 2014 according to the CDC, but experts believe the actual number is higher. Many suicides go unreported or are misclassified as accidental, covered up by grieving family members or accommodating medical examiners.
Sherri’s death was no accident, but it’s taken several months for her mother to come to terms with it.
“I’ve got to get her story out there,” said Lynda Mannion, Sherri’s mother. “She got to the point in the last year or so she could hardly eat solid food at all. She was just drinking her nutrition. I guess she must have lost 20 to 30 pounds in the last year.
“She would say, ‘I can’t go on living like this. If I can’t get some help, if somebody doesn’t believe me, I just can’t go on living like this.’ She didn’t seem to be extremely afraid of dying, considering the alternative, living with the pain she was in. But I never expected her to do it.”
A few months before she died, Sherri gave an interview to Tina Petrova in Toronto for a soon-to-be released documentary called Pandemic of Denial.
“Sherri Little and I first became friends on Facebook, united by our common passion of pain patient advocacy. She initially reached out to me after hearing that I had a film in development I was producing on chronic pain and said, ‘Do I have a story for you!’ And indeed, she did,” says Petrova.
In this short clip, Sherri doesn’t talk about suicide and appears hopeful about her future.
But just weeks later, Sherri wrote the following in an email to Petrova:
“I was acutely suicidal last night after being verbally abused by a doctor who can't even get me any pain relief anymore,” said Sherri. “In a last ditch effort to save my life I am going to Cedar Sinai ER in LA with my patient advocate.”
Sherri was referring to Lisa Blackstock, a professional advocate who founded Soul Sherpa to help guide patients through the healthcare system. Blackstock had been a volunteer at Cedars-Sinai for several years and knew her way around one of the most respected hospitals in Los Angeles.
The day before she went to the hospital, Sherri was still having suicidal thoughts.
“I woke at 3am today, ready to give up the fight and end my life. This is not dramatic or blaming of you, but just a statement of fact: my life has not been worth living for 2 years,” Sherri wrote in an email to Blackstock.
The two women went to Cedars-Sinai together and were in the emergency room for 11 hours before Sherri was finally admitted as a patient with severe abdominal pain on the evening of July 3rd.
Over the next two days, Sherri was examined by doctors and a psychiatrist, who concluded she was a “moderate” suicide risk because she had never actually tried to take her own life.
“Patient is at moderate risk of harm to self, but does not meet criteria for involuntary psychiatric treatment at this time,” the psychiatrist wrote in Sherri’s medical records, which were provided to Pain News Network by her mother.
Sherri was scheduled for a colonoscopy on July 6, but never had the procedure. For reasons that are not clear, she became frustrated with her treatment and left the hospital the night before.
“She left against medical advice,” Sherri’s discharge notes say. “Efforts were made to talk to her about the seriousness of her decision. She explained that she understood but, however, would like to leave against medical advice.”
Lisa Blackstock didn’t learn about Sherri’s release until it was too late.
“Despite a HIPAA release (patient release form) on file naming me as Sherri's contact, the doctor did not contact me and decided there was no reason to place her on a 72-hour involuntary hold,” Blackstock wrote in a letter to the coroner’s investigator. “Sherri was allowed to leave the hospital, in pain and suicidal, and the physicians responsible for her care failed miserably.
“I am a long-term volunteer at Cedars, and, until this incident, had great respect for them. Changes in healthcare law have resulted in substandard care for many patients depending upon their insurance coverage types, as well as hospital administrators dictating care for patients rather than skilled physicians.”
A spokeswoman for Cedars-Sinai said the hospital was unable to comment and wouldn’t even confirm Sherri had been a patient there.
“State and federal privacy laws prevent hospitals from releasing information about patients without their consent, including whether an individual may or may not be a current or former patient,” wrote Sally Stewart in an email to PNN.
Cocktail of Medications
Long before she was admitted to Cedars-Sinai, Sherri was prescribed a potent cocktail of medications for her pain and depression; including the opioids tramadol and hydrocodone, as well as Lyrica (pregabalin), Ambien (zolpidem), and Klonopin (clonazepam).
Lyrica, Ambien and Klonopin have all been linked to increased risk of suicide.
Klonopin belongs to a class of sedatives known as benzodiazepines, which are increasingly being linked to overdoses, especially when combined with opioids. Klonopin’s label also warns of “suicidal behavior and ideation.”
Why were doctors prescribing these drugs to someone who was suicidal? And why did Cedars-Sinai release Sherri with the drugs in her possession?
“They discharged her with all of them at Cedars, which I found just incredibly irresponsible,” says Blackstock.
According to the autopsy report, the coroner found only trace amounts of opioids and Ambien in Sherri’s system, but apparently never looked for the other drugs. Her official cause of death is listed vaguely as “combined effects of medications.”
Were the same drugs that Sherri took for her pain and depression – which were ineffective in helping either – used as instruments in her death?
We may never know the answer.
“I have fought to get help for the disease I am dying of – pseudomembranous colitis – for years without help from anyone,” Sherri wrote in her suicide note. “I do not want to be resuscitated. There is nothing left for me but to be tied to a hospital bed in great pain.”
Sherri was divorced and did not have any children. But a close circle of friends and loved ones are anxious to have her story told and her memory preserved.
“She was beautiful from the time she was little. She was beautiful up to the day she died. She looked 20 years younger than she was,” recalls Sherri’s mother, Lynda.
“She loved to help people. She wanted to help people and she couldn’t understand why nobody would help her. She would have been there for anybody.”
“Sherri was one of those rare people that could light up the room upon entering,” recalls her friend, Tina Petrova. “During the all too short time I knew Sherri, her key focus above all was advocating for pain patients, speaking up, getting involved. Her search for treatments for her own painful conditions took a back seat to her passion to help others.
“I can just see her high above us saying, “But you have to DO SOMETHING!’”
Sherri’s advocacy will continue, thanks to a website Petrova created to honor Sherri's memory and the documentary that she’s producing on chronic pain in North America.
What can the rest of us learn from Sherri’s struggle?
Perhaps those lessons are best learned through her own words -- and the advice that Sherri gave to other pain sufferers: