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The Opioid Public Health Crisis: One Mother's Mission

The Life Care Specialist is an innovative opioid addiction prevention idea.

Key points

  • Opioid use and misuse are public health emergencies, and innovations are needed to address the overprescribing epidemic.
  • The Life Care Specialist Program was created by Cammie Wolf Rice in the memory of her son who died after an opioid overdose.
  • A Life Care Specialist provides education about nonpharmacological interventions to help patients taper off of opioids post-surgery.
Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels
Source: Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels

Cammie Wolf Rice launched the Christopher Wolf Crusade (CWC) in 2018 in memory of her son, Christopher, who died from an opioid overdose. He became addicted due to the overprescribing of opioids for his pain after multiple surgeries as a teenager and young adult. In Cammie's experiences with her son's hospitalizations, not one health-care provider gave her family information about the dangers of pain medication. Her experience was the catalyst to conceptualize the role of Life Care Specialist and the need to add this new level of health-care provider to hospital systems nationwide.

Opioid use and misuse are public-health emergencies, and innovations are needed to address the overprescribing epidemic. Neuman (2019) reports that the U.S. and Canada are two countries where opioid overprescribing after surgery appears to be common. Ladha (2019) finds that excessive postoperative opioid prescribing has been associated with increased risks of drug diversion, new long-term opioid use, and the development of opioid use disorder.

In the United States, thousands of families are grieving from losing a family member due to opioids. The Centers for Disease Control (2022) report that overdose deaths involving opioids increased from an estimated 70,029 in 2020 to 80,816 in 2021. Cammie's journey has been torturous and ladened with grief, and she is not alone. We at the Trauma Resource Institute, along with Emory University, Grady Hospital, Usher's New Look, the Cambodian Children's Fund, and Mercer University School of Medicine, have partnered with her and the CWC to try to introduce innovation to the public health issue of opioid addiction.

Damiescu's (2021) review evaluated the risk factors associated with opioid overdoses. It investigated the rates of chronic opioid misuse, particularly in the context of chronic pain and post-surgery treatments, as those typically represent the entrance of opioids into people's lives. Damiescu (2021) stated that opioid abuse and misuse have led to an epidemic that is spreading worldwide and suggests that fighting it requires a structured public health approach.

In the immense sea of needed interventions to address the public health emergency of the opioid crisis, the Christopher Wolf Crusade launched, in conjunction with Emory University and Grady Hospital in Atlanta, the Life Care Specialist Program. Dr. Mara Schenker, Dr. Nicholas Giordano, and their colleagues have launched research titled, "The effect of a Life Care Specialist on pain management and opioid-related outcomes among patients with orthopedic trauma." Their preliminary results are promising.

The Life Care Specialist Program's goal is to establish Life Care Specialists (LCS) within hospitals nationwide. The LCS is part of an interdisciplinary treatment team collaborating on assessment and treatment. The specialist's primary focus is to introduce an integrated behavior-specific intervention during inpatient hospitalization to decrease opioid utilization and improve pain management post-hospitalization.

The Life Care Specialist Training follows a multi-modal approach. The training educates about the nature of opioids and the impact of opioid use, misuse, and addiction on individuals and families. LCS training includes the development of skills and information to optimize the LCSs' interactions with patients. The specialist learns to use nonpharmacological interventions that promote well-being and that can be integrated into the patient's Life Care Plan—a personalized comprehensive pain-management plan created by the patient in collaboration with their LCS. The plan aims to optimize pain management strategies and help the patient learn about the array of nonpharmacological interventions that can be integrated into daily living activities to reduce or eliminate the use of opioid medication.

The Healing Wheel is the hub of the Life Care Specialist Program. The components of the Healing Wheel are delivered by Life Care Specialists trained to be the bridge between the hospital and home, providing much-needed information about how to taper off opioid medication prescribed after orthopedic surgery. The Healing Wheel includes a Personalized Pain Management Plan, Mental Health Wellness Skills, Relaxation Exercises, Empathic Listening, Care Coordination and Referral, Continued Care after Hospitalization, Caregiver Support, Sleep Coaching, Music Therapy, and Pain Medication Education.

Cammie Wolf Rice's new book, The Flight: My Opioid Journey, describes her path and the purpose and meaning that came out of her grief over her son's avoidable and tragic death. Cammie poignantly describes the events that inspired her to create the CWC and her mission to create prevention strategies to end opioid dependence. The book can be helpful for therapists and clients addressing the opioid crisis personally and systemically.

Cammie has a message for families struggling with opioids: "Your loved one is suffering and don't give up on them. Creating a support team around you is crucial, so you have someone to reach out to when you need help." Cammie encourages all parents to be health advocates for their children: "We must protect our kids and ask questions if your child must have surgery. Do you have a non-narcotic for my child? How long does my child need to be on this? We assume that just because something is prescribed, it's safe."

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(2022) National Center for Health Statistics, May 2022, U.S. Overdose Deaths In 2021 Increased Half as Much as in 2020 – But Are Still Up 15%

Chea, Carin, 2022, Flight and Fight: Interview with Cammie Wolf Rice,,…

Damiescu R, Banerjee M, Lee DYW, Paul NW, Efferth T. Health(care) in the Crisis: Reflections in Science and Society on Opioid Addiction. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021; 18(1):341.

Ladha KS, Neuman MD, Broms G, et al. Opioid Prescribing After Surgery in the United States, Canada, and Sweden. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(9):e1910734. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.10734

Neuman MD, Bateman BT, Wunsch H. Inappropriate opioid prescription after surgery. Lancet. 2019 Apr 13;393(10180):1547-1557. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30428-3. PMID: 30983590; PMCID: PMC6556783.

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