A beautiful young woman gets the job of her dreams.
A major airline notifies Rhonda she has been accepted as a flight attendant, and she goes out to celebrate, as anyone would do upon getting her dream job.
The dream turned into a nightmare on that evening in 1987. A car crash broke Rhonda’s back, ribs and almost severed her right foot.
“Her foot was literally sewn back on,” says her sister, Kathy. “It shriveled up to size 3 while her undamaged foot was a size 5.”
Rhonda could not have known then, but she was about to begin years of living with severe and chronic pain – the kind that does not go away, that affects everything you want to do, that cries for attention and demands relief.
“She woke up with the Devil (pain-taunting her) every morning,” Kathy wrote me in an email.
The results: Rhonda became an early victim of the opioid epidemic.
President Donald Trump “threw the weight of the White House behind the fight against the opioid crisis” Aug. 10 and “declared it a national emergency,” NBC News reported.
“The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially, right now, it is an emergency,” Trump said in New Jersey. “It’s a national emergency. We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis.”
Rhonda’s story is part of this broader national story.
It took years for her to recover from the initial surgeries, her sister says. And along this personal journey, Rhonda encountered a variety of challenges, including harassment from bystanders when she legally used a handicapped parking space.
Rhonda became a mother. She worked. “She looked beautiful and normal but couldn’t walk distances,” Kathy says.
“She tried everything to control her pain,” her sister explained. “Texas Department of Human Services used to give her hydrocodone in the friendly, Texas-size, 100-pill bottle before the medical community realized how addictive it was. Then she went to a pain clinic that added methadone and injections in her back. Needless to say, it took a horrible toll on her body.”
Kathy gave me a quick introduction on how opioids work in order to explain what happened to her sister. “Opioids suppress the respiratory system. Rhonda did not die of an overdose, just a general shutting down of her ability to breath.”
“She almost died in January 2005, but my mother was there and noticed she was in distress,” Kathy said. “The ambulance came and revived her. One month later, she was dead. Her autopsy did not show an ‘overdose’ of any one drug.”
Only those who have walked this path of pain can fully understand it.
Kathy, in 2009, suddenly better understood her sister’s earlier pain. “Only after I shattered my ankle bone in 2009 did I really understand how much pain Rhonda endured.”
Kathy’s pain led her to marvel even more at her sister’s strength and resiliency. “Rhonda was sweet, funny, thoughtful even through her pain and addiction. And she still went on to have a baby. As I look back on her struggle, she was really very brave! I love her and miss her.”
Kathy, in a Facebook post, encouraged her friends to share this story, and she gave me permission to write about it and gave me some more information via email.
“Please share this with someone that you know that lives in chronic pain every single day of their lives,” Kathy wrote. “Let them know you KNOW the struggle is real.”
The Facebook post brought an outpouring of love and concern from Kathy’s friends.
One spoke of her own struggles: “Chronic pain is hard to live with. I take hydrocodone, for severe pain, and 1900 mg of Tylenol for regular pain. But it’s there every single day. [My husband] says I cry in my sleep when the pain is severe. I’m very careful with the pain meds, but they are a part of my life. I know people that have much worse pain than mine.”
And then the writer says something interesting. “I don’t judge.”
She speaks to a tough reality. Some people actually cast negative judgments on people who take meds to deal with chronic pain. This coldness of heart is really hard to grasp.
And then this pain sufferer says something else that is interesting. “[T]he meds don’t get you out of pain, it just makes it where you can bear it. Opioid deaths are at an all [time] high, but there are people that have to have them.”
And yet another respondent, Pam, thanked Kathy for sharing Rhonda’s story.
“I suffer from chronic pain due to an accident in 1992. I have been on opioids from that day. Starting 2 years ago, I began having respiratory problems. Not one doctor mentioned the possibility it could be a side effect of the opioids. Thank you for that information. I will ask my doctor about this when I go,” she said. “Chronic pain is real! It has to be treated aggressively. Doctors prescribe these meds knowing yet don’t give you a choice. In my case, I have an allergy to anything else they might use but maybe just maybe there is something to replace it with now.”
These three women have opened my eyes to the broader life context within which this opioid crisis is occurring. The long and short of it is that a whole lot of people we know and do not know need us to pay attention and to help.
These women have spoken up now, and it’s a memorial of sorts to this one who has gone before them – Rhonda, a victim of this epidemic.
Kathy has experienced God’s grace and forgiveness in some of her own struggles, but Rhonda’s “chronic pain and opioids kept her from feeling God’s grace.”
If I may say it in broader terms, sometimes our circumstances in life make it hard for us to fully appreciate and accept God’s grace and forgiveness. For some people, the pains of life help them turn to God; for others, the pain can become a roadblock.
Plus, opioids make it difficult to think clearly. All of us need to keep this in mind as we help others caught in addiction.
Kathy did report that in the months before she died, Rhonda had started reading California pastor Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life.”
“I do know it changed her attitude and outlook,” Kathy said. It “gave her hope” even though her body was already worn out.
Jesus famously said that how we treat “the sick” is one of the things that reveal whether a person is in good standing with God (Matthew 25).
When we provide care for the sick, Jesus said, it is as if we are providing care to God himself. People in chronic pain are among the “sick” in our midst who need care.
Rhonda did not become the flight attendant of her dreams, but she can help us now to find our way. And we can help the many others who struggle with pain and opioid addiction.
Ferrell Foster is director of ethics and justice for the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ Christian Life Commission. A version of this article first appeared on the BGCT’s blog. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ferrellfoster.