Tylenol for Postoperative Pain?

By Margaret Aranda, MD, Columnist

I saw them do it to our veterans. Now they were going to do it to me.

I heard the veterans scream decades ago, when I was president of a pre-med club at a VA hospital in Los Angeles. There was a little local anesthetic, no oxygen, no vital signs and no anesthesiologist. The hematologist-oncologist did the bone marrow extraction herself.

Now I was about to have the same procedure myself, to get an early diagnosis of mastocytosis, an orphan disease.  No one was going to tell me that I won’t hurt. The veterans fought in a war, yet they screamed.

After taking my vital signs, the intake nurse interrogated me, eyes peering over her bifocals.

“When was the last time you took OxyContin?” she asked.

(My thoughts: We never asked such a scrutinizing question. They could draw an opioid blood level, to “check” and see if I was telling the truth. Sure, my blood levels would be low, because it’s been a week. I’m not a drug addict. Big breath. Don’t let your thoughts get negative. Just get through this day.)

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Postoperative pain was a big concern for me.

“What will I get for post-op pain?” I asked the anesthesiologist.

(My thoughts: I don't want to cry. I don't want to hurt. I've had a lifetime of pain, and I live with it daily. Sores pervade me. They are all over my head, itchy ones that feel like cold sores mixed with chicken pox. If I scratch one, they all itch, including the sores on my arms and back. How much worse is my life about to get?)

"Tylenol. No post-op opioids for pain," was his reply.

You bet my world crashed.

"I can't do Tylenol. I need to save my liver. Everyone knows the smallest dose of Tylenol can hurt the liver. Besides, I don’t want to lose my empathy. Studies show acetaminophen causes a lack of empathy,” I said.

“Ibuprofen,” was his answer.

(My thoughts: How much lower can my world crash? What the heck? Do you really know I’m a doctor, too? Do you know how many patients I’ve personally intubated through a GI bleed so they could breathe?)

“I can’t do ibuprofen,” I told him. “I can’t have a GI bleed. Or a heart attack. Or a stroke.”

“Oh, okay! Morphine and fentanyl, a mixture. Morphine lasts longer," the anesthesiologist said.

(My thoughts: I can breathe again. Now I have to be the perfect patient.)

The pathologist was cheery, polite and smiled a lot. We went over the pathology of mastocytosis, WHO classifications, the systemic vs. cutaneous forms, early diagnosis, and the bone marrow procedure I was about to have. He asked if I had enough opioids for post-op pain. I did. I concluded that he does not write his own pain prescriptions.

Once on the operating table, the surgeon caressed my head, patting it before I fell asleep. I inwardly smiled as I laid straight on my right side. Cold prep solution dripped down my lower back as I sunk into sleep.

The surgeon bore into the ileum, then sucked out the bone marrow with a syringe.

When I woke up, my butt was numb and I did not need any more pain medication. But I was not given a prescription for postoperative pain for when I went home. I was told to use my existing opioid prescription for pain, which is reasonable, as long as my doctor doesn't "count" them against me.

(My thoughts: How do patients defend themselves to get opioids for during and after surgery? I mean, I’m a doctor and I had to stick up for myself. What if the patient does not even know to ask about postoperative pain at all? They must wake up screaming, an insult to any anesthesiologist. What has happened to patient care?

They profession of anesthesiology has changed.

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Dr. Margaret Aranda is a Stanford and Keck USC alumni in anesthesiology and critical care. She has dysautonomia and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) after a car accident left her with traumatic brain injuries that changed her path in life to patient advocacy.

Margaret is a board member of the Invisible Disabilities Association. She has authored six books, the most recent is The Rebel Patient: Fight for Your Diagnosis. You can follow Margaret’s expert social media advice on Twitter, Google +, Blogspot, Wordpress. and LinkedIn.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.