Article by Alyson Martin, Buzz Feed
Ernestine Coon reclined in her hospital bed at The Connecticut Hospice with a colorful blanket covering her legs, watching seagulls soar over the water from her second-floor room. Longtime friends chatted with Coon as the slender, silver-haired grandmother prepared to do something she’d never done in her 70 years: Try marijuana.
One year ago, Coon visited the doctor and left with a diagnosis of ovarian and uterine cancer. Now, with doctors giving her about six months to live, she has constant pain in her abdomen and back, and has signed on as patient number five in the nation’s first federally approved trial to see if medical cannabis can sufficiently reduce pain in dying patients so that they can reduce their use of opioids. The study, which was announced in December and began in May, could change how millions of dying Americans treat severe pain, and open the door to alternatives to prescription painkillers blamed for a nationwide epidemic of addiction and overdose deaths. It’s expected to run for at least a year, and the goal is to enroll 66 on-site patients who are well enough to swallow capsules filled with cannabis extract, but whose pain is so bad that they require prescription medication to manage it — patients like Coon, one of the 1.3 million US hospice patients facing certain death and hoping to make it as pain-free as possible.
“You’re talking to someone who never did drugs,” Coon said, her voice scratchy. “It wasn’t my thing.”
That has changed as her disease has progressed and her pain has worsened. Coon — an energetic woman who brags that she rarely was ill and was never hospitalized except when she gave birth — now has trouble walking, sitting up straight, or playing with her grandchildren. “Since I was diagnosed with this, I’ve probably taken medicines that in my wildest dreams I never even thought I would be taking,” Coon said, craning her neck to see her two friends, Fran and Ann, who were sitting nearby. Ann held Coon’s hand. Fran grabbed a photo from the windowsill that showed Coon at her happiest, healthiest self — grinning in the midst of a pile of grandkids.
“In fact, I’m going to give myself a dose,” Coon said as she pressed a button that looked like a buzzer. It pushed a small dose of Dilaudid, a powerful opiate, into her body through a pump.
A “tree of life” is etched on the glass at the entrance to The Connecticut Hospice, which sits on the shore of Long Island Sound and serves 3,000 people each year. The nation’s first hospice, founded in 1974, treats pain in a variety of ways, from a visit with Lizzie, an eager golden retriever therapy dog, to some of the strongest painkillers available. But the drugs’ side effects — drowsiness, confusion, and nausea, among others — add to the agony of gravely ill patients and their relatives, who want their loved ones to be alert in their final days.
The cannabis study was designed in part by Wen-Jen Hwu, a Yale School of Medicine graduate and former fellow at the hospice, who watched families endure the misery that often accompanies conventional drug care, and who concluded that, sometimes, it’s more humane to address the symptoms rather than continue treating the disease.
“The tradition is narcotics, and more and more narcotics. But, that makes patients more lethargic, more confused, and have nausea, vomiting, and poor appetite and depression,” said Hwu, now an oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas and a board member at The Connecticut Hospice. “I do believe that the marijuana can definitely reduce the amount of the opiates that we need for our patients. More importantly, it can help them to feel better than they actually are.”