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Jim Burke sits next to a photo of his wife Joanne at his Dartmouth home on Friday morning. Joanne died last month at the age of 63. - Ryan Taplin - The Chronicle Herald
Jim Burke sits next to a photo of his wife Joanne at his Dartmouth home on Friday morning. Joanne died last month at the age of 63. - Ryan Taplin - The Chronicle Herald

Jim Burke says opioid pain medicaton took his wife’s life.

And nothing can kill the pain of her loss.

“I have no reason to keep on living,” a teary-eyed Burke said Friday in his Dartmouth home. “She was my life.

“The opioids killed her. Nothing else.”

Joanne (Moore) Burke died Nov. 17. She was 63.

“Once the autopsy is completed, the official cause of death will be recorded,” said Burke. “It will be wrong. Addiction took my wife. Addiction is a disease. No one chooses to be an addict, just like no one chooses to be diabetic. Neither does one ask to have MS. These diseases, in and of themselves, are horrible, but to the best of my knowledge, they don’t steal your soul.”

Burke and his wife, both Cape Bretoners, were together for 38 years.

“When she walked into a room, her beauty, and more importantly her spirit, lit it up,” Burke, 69, said. “Her presence made wherever she happened to be a better place.”

Burke described Joanne as a head-turner who was most happy when mowing the lawn, digging in her flower garden and scrubbing her floors.

Burke said his wife’s downhill spiral began in 1988, when “her addictive gene started to take over.

“Her initial drug of choice was alcohol. She always took a drink, ever since I’ve known her, but just one or two or three. When the addiction took over, she started drinking and she would not stop until all the available alcohol was gone or she passed out. She was sneaking alcohol into the house and I would often find empty bottles throughout.”

Joanne was a “binge drinker,” who maintained a full-time job, Burke said.

Less than a decade later, in 2007, she developed severe neck pain as a result of a minor injury to the spinal cord.

“Our family doctor prescribed an opioid for the pain, dilaudid. Later that same year, a fentanyl patch was added to the mix because my wife’s pain was not decreasing.

“My doctor did not ask my wife if she had addiction problems, nor did she ask me, she just proceeded to give her an opioid.”

Burke said Joanne had a spinal fusion in the spring of 2009 and the attending surgeon referred her to the pain management clinic at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax. Burke said 10 days after the spinal fusion, Joanne was feeling great, hanging clothes out on the line. She shouldn’t have kept the pain clinic appointment, he said.

An attending physician at the clinic and another at the at the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation and Arthritis Centre prescribed methadone for Joanne.

“I’ve never heard of it used for pain but I’m not a doctor so I’m sure they thought it would help with the pain. Within months, both her legs were grossly swollen, cracked and hot to the touch. Concurrently, she gained 30 pounds with no increase in food intake and she had quit alcohol because of the danger of mixing the drugs and the alcohol. It took until 2015 to discover that she was retaining fluid, which is a side effect of the methadone. With proper medication, she returned to her normal weight of 125 pounds but the psychological effect of putting on that much weight caused her to stop eating and at the time of her death she weighed 88 pounds.”

In the interim, the woman whose initial medical issues were thyroid problems, a painful neck and depression had spent time in hospital with severe chest pain, breathing problems and congestive heart failure. She walked with her head down and by 2014, she was bent over so badly, you could barely see her face, Burke said. And she was listing to the left.

“Because of her unsteady gait and because she was an addict, she was taking four to six Gravol a day. Between 2014 to 2018, she fell over 100 times. Among her injuries were three broken shoulders, two broken wrists, a broken neck and multiple rib fractures. The most recent fall was Nov. 13, causing a small broken bone in her leg for which she only needed bracing.

“She never came home from that hospital visit.”

Jim Burke looks at photos of his wife Joanne at his Dartmouth home on Friday morning. Joanne died last month at the age of 63. - Ryan Taplin/The Chronicle Herald

Burke said none of it should have happened.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the dangers of dilaudid and methadone and the other opioids were not explained to my wife,” he said, adding that Joanne was very conscious of her appearance, including her perfect white teeth.

“If she had been told about meth-mouth which causes tooth loss, she would have said, no, no, f---ing way no, a hundred times. The weight gain, she would have walked out ... she would have said no way.”

Burke said he told both the family doctor and their pharmacist that Joanne was an addict. They either didn’t respond or told him that she was not.

“At no point did any of the narcotic prescribers ask me or my wife’s family members if she had a history of addiction. As a matter of fact, I don’t even recall being asked to attend any of the meetings.”

The Nova Scotia College of Physicians and Surgeons did not respond to a request for an interview but the college said after a May 2017 meeting that it had endorsed the then new 2017 Canadian Guideline for Opioids for Chronic Non-Cancer Pain as best practices for Nova Scotia doctors. Among the 10 recommendations from the Canadian guidelines is an urging to optimize non-opioid drugs and non-drug therapies for patients with chronic non-cancer pain.

The guidelines strongly recommended against using opioids for patients who have an active substance use disorder.

“Clinicians should facilitate treatment of the underlying substance-use disorders, if not addressed,” the recommendation reads. “The studies that identified substance-use disorder as a risk factor for adverse outcomes characterized the conditions as alcohol abuse and dependence, and narcotic abuse and dependence.”

Burke said doctors treat the symptom, which is pain, with opioids, instead of digging down and finding the cause of the pain.

“If you have pain, you have a reason for the pain. Let’s find out what the reason is for the pain.”

Heart-broken, Burke was preparing for a Friday afternoon session with a grief counsellor. He said he can’t face returning to the places that he and Joanne used to frequent as a couple. She loved Christmas and everything about it and they had their simple but special Christmas traditions together.

“It was the most wonderful night of the year. I can’t do that anymore. People are inviting me and I say why the F do you want a sadsack son of a bitch sitting in front of you guys having all that fun. Maybe in years to come ...”

Burke plans to prepare a letter of complaint to send to the College of Physicians and Surgeons whenever he receives all of his wife’s medical documents.

“My hope is that when the prescribing physicians receive a copy of my letter, they are inflicted with such guilt that they carry it for the rest of their days. I will not sue because money doesn’t do a thing for me. My plea to all my fellow Nova Scotians is to never, under any circumstance, accept a prescription for opioids unless you have life-threatening cancer and you are about to die with severe pain. Because they do kill. I’m 100 per cent sure of that.

“The world is a less bright space now that my star is gone.”

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