A Montana Woman’s Suicide Prompts the Question: Are We Doing Enough?

By Ed Coghlan.

A woman who had been physically active for all of her life, who had been a law enforcement officer and who also suffered from intractable chronic pain killed herself recently.

Her name was Jennifer Adams and she lived in Helena, Montana.

She had a career in law enforcement, working as a deputy sheriff, and as a member of the Helena Police Department. She was a remarkable athlete who loved to run marathons, ski, snowboard and many other things. She loved the lifestyle of Montana.

Jennifer Adams

She also was a visible member of Montana’s increasingly public (and angry) pain community. One of her colleagues, Gary Snook, remembered her simply as a very good person who tried to fight her chronic intractable pain but was overwhelmed as doctors she visited left their practices either because they were suspended or retired.

She started to see Dr. Mark Ibsen in Helena in 2014 who he said had to convince her to use a “moderate dose” of opioids in order to help deal with her pain. Her law enforcement background made her skeptical of opioids and downright adamant about using cannabis, which she refused to do.

When Ibsen ran afoul of the Montana Medical Board (his license was suspended), she began to see Dr. Forest Tennant of West Covina, California who is known as a staunch advocate of using opioids for the treatment of intractable chronic pain. Then Tennant himself became a target of the DEA which raided his office late last year. Tennant announced he was closing his pain clinic in March of this year.

According to her friend and fellow Montana chronic pain patient, Gary Snook, Jennifer felt isolated, alone and finally determined she couldn’t take it anymore.

For Dr. Terri Lewis, who is a Montana native and has been a leading voice in what she believes is a failure of the health care system to treat chronic pain, this should be a wake up for states who she believes are failing their patients. She thinks her home state is a particularly negative example—she calls it a “pain care desert”. She also said that Montana leads the nation in suicides of persons with complex care needs, like chronic pain.

Here’s what she told the National Pain Report.

“We lack a cohesive unified understanding of the pain experience across the nation. Across the disciplines of care, pain is inconsistently conceptualized and therefore responded to differently. Each state has implemented different regulatory processes, some confusing addiction prevention with the care for pain and long-term support for chronic, complex illnesses,” she said.

Some states, like Montana, have no functioning pain law at all, relying on the application of guidelines of various types or the courts to determine the limits of care. Montana’s situation is especially grievous as there is no cohesive plan for resourcing the care of persons who struggle with pain, and the state Board of Medicine has abdicated its duties to plan for or recruit the necessary medical capacity to support post-acute and long-term care for pain syndromes of every type.  This has turned Montana into a pain care desert without trained, broadly experienced medical personnel or a continuum of care from onset of illness through end of life planning.”

In her obituary in the Helena Independent Record, pain activist Valorie Hawk wrote:

“The pain community mourns another unnecessary loss of a life – our souls are crushed as the numbers mount. Our hearts go out to Jennifer’s family and friends, we will keep fighting for those we have lost and those that can’t fight for themselves.”

Here’s her obituary in the Helena Independent Record.

One final note about Jennifer. She had a son, nicknamed “Tuff”, who is a middle school student in Helena. Like his mom, he is a remarkable athlete, well-liked by his peers and by all accounts a really “good kid”. When he returns to school this week he will be welcomed back by his classmates which we are sure and fervently hope will be of some comfort to the young man.

One final comment from this author: This stubborn fact remains: Chronic pain affects more American adults than heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined. And there’s no agreement on how to best treat it. We can do better. We will continue to expand our conversation about what can be done to better identify, educate and most importantly, treat chronic pain.