The Nursing Dilemma of Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana is legal in Oregon, where I practice. In one sense, this seems to be an enlightened act of legislation for patients who cannot tolerate conventional medications or simply prefer an herbal approach to managing pain and/or nausea. Its use is particularly prevalent in among oncology patients, and those with chronic pain.

Still, it’s a nursing conundrum. The issue is that marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. Because of this, many hospitals are reluctant to allow prescription marijuana on their campuses. Although a 2009 Justice Department memo recommends that drug enforcement agents focus their investigations away from “clear and unambiguous” use of prescription marijuana, it also says users claiming legal use but not adhering to regulations may be prosecuted.

In light of this, hospitals take the conservative approach: Attending licensed medical practitioners are prevented from prescribing medical marijuana for hospitalized patients, and create policies prohibiting the use of medical marijuana on their campuses.

For pharmacists and nurses the problem is this:

  • Pharmacists can only dispense medications prescribed by licensed medical practitioners. The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which means licensed medical practitioners cannot prescribe it.
  • Nurses administer medications only with an order obtained from licensed medical practitioners.

Nurses may have run-ins with patients and caregivers unfamiliar with this policy, and a patient’s home medication routine may be disrupted.

Though it does not happen often, I had the experience of treating a chemotherapy patient expecting to smoke marijuana between infusions to control nausea and vomiting. Initially caught off guard, I struggled to find a way to manage the situation.

The campus did not permit smoking, tobacco or otherwise. When I reviewed the hospital policy, it confirmed that the medical marijuana was not an exception. I explained this to the patient, who was understanding, but skeptical.

Reviewing the premedication orders, the oncologist had done a good job of covering nausea and vomiting with conventional medications. I asked the patient to give it a try. Always having a plan B, I promised that if the medications didn’t work, I’d call the oncologist and, if necessary, the department manager.

Fortunately, the conventional medications worked. The patient enjoyed a hearty lunch and held it down. For the future, I recommended the patient smoke marijuana at home before appointments, and afterwards if indicated.

Several states have enacted medical marijuana laws. Do you work in one of them? How does this affect your nursing practice?

 

Pain is The 5th Vital Sign, Who Has Control?

Photograph courtesy of Adriana Paradisi, 2011

Recently, two nurses in my blogging community wrote about patients in pain. Joni Watson at Nursetopia posted a link to horrific videos of patients suffering in pain without proper medication, and J. Doe at Those Emergency Blues urges nurses to provide post-op patients with education along with that vial of pain medication at discharge.

Patients who are not in control of their own pain medication often suffer in pain. Here’s a composite story from my Pediatric Intensive Care experience:

I am taking report on a child less than 24 hours post-op open-heart surgery. The night nurse, who is fairly new, tells me that the only pain medication given on her shift was acetaminophen, although the surgeon ordered narcotics too. I say, “WHAT?” The night shift nurse explains she offered narcotics, but the patient’s mother, who was up all night at the bedside, refused them. Like I said, I am familiar with this routine. I have a script for it. I ask the night shift nurse to follow me into the patient’s room so she can learn it too.

In the room, I see a small child sitting rigidly in a hospital bed. An untouched breakfast tray rests across her lap on the bedside table. Above her, the green tracings of the monitor displays tachycardia (heart rate is high). The central venous pressure (CVP) and blood pressure are also high. Barney the Purple Dinosaur is singing about friendship on the blaring TV, and I feel a headache coming on. Mom at the bedside, looks like she hasn’t slept for weeks, and is clearly exhausted. I say “Good morning,” and introduce myself. I say, “So, your daughter’s surgery went very well. How do you think she is doing today, right now?”

The Mom tells me her daughter seems very quiet, and isn’t eating breakfast, which is unusual. I say “Hmmm,” then point out that all of the numbers on the monitor are high, and to me, it looks like her daughter might be painful. “By the way, the night shift nurse mentioned that you prefer your daughter receive only acetaminophen, and she hasn’t had any narcotics. Is there a reason you don’t want her to receive narcotics?”

I am not surprised to find out that someone in the mother’s family recently died of cancer, or another long disease process and at end of life was on a narcotic drip.

The mother equates narcotics with death, and is illogically protecting her daughter by preventing narcotic administration. The patient is too young to speak for herself. I educate the mom on the difference between post-op analgesia and end of life pain control. She allows me to give a little narcotic to her child, and soon the kid is eating breakfast and singing along with Barney. Her vital signs are normal, and the surgeon is very happy with her progress.

Now I work in an ambulatory oncology clinic, and I see another variation of this patient who is not in control of his or her own pain medication administration. Typically, this patient has rapid disease progression, and almost always tumor metastasis to the spine. They are easily identified by their need of mobility assistance, and are painful even lying in bed. They tend to talk to you with their eyes closed. They are too sick to speak for themselves.

A family member always accompanies them, and that person knows the name of all the prescribed medications, the doses, and when they were last given. They give a detailed report of the patient’s diet, stools, and urinary output. The patient is clean, and dressed in clean clothes. They are obviously loved.

I assess for the fifth vital sign: pain. Their body language prepares me for a high number, and I am not surprised when they report an 8 out of 10, or greater. I see on the home medication list that the oncologist has prescribed both long acting pain medication and a short acting one for breakthrough pain.

I ask both the patient and the caregiver when the patient last had pain medication. The caregiver answers, “Last night.” I ask why the patient didn’t have a dose in the morning before this appointment. The answer is something like, “He needs to walk more.” “He doesn’t eat enough when he takes pain meds.” “I didn’t think he needed it,” and a long list more. Apparently, this is a very common problem confronting hospice nurses, and Medscape has a very good article on the topic.

It is my experience when encountering this caregiver and pointing out that their loved one is in pain that they start to cry. They almost always have the vial of long acting pain medication in their purse or pocket. I get an order from the oncologist, and together, the caregiver and I treat our patient for pain.

I explain that the bone pain will not go away; it will worsen. Our patient will need more pain medication, not less.  Then we discuss loss and grief, and how painful they are. The caregiver sees their loved one floating away on a cloud of analgesics, and illogically thinks that withholding narcotics will keep them here longer. I can’t fix this for them. It’s going to happen. I provide a safe environment to talk about grief. I urge them to be brave and declare their love by treating pain. I arrange the appropriate support to protect the patient at home.

And I say a little prayer for all of us.

Just Because You’re Big Enough to Hold Still (patients, pain & procedures)

    I still experience culture shock, since my transfer from pediatric intensive care to outpatient adult oncology nursing , over the difference in sedation use during procedures for pediatric and adult patients. What allowed me to tolerate 15 years of pediatric intensive care nursing (yes, it is as emotionally challenging as you think it is) was the routine sedation of the child going through procedures. 

   Adult patients know that when their healthcare provider says, “You may experience some discomfort during the procedure”, what we mean is  “This is gonna hurt.” Remember, this is an industry that accepts anal leakage as a reasonable side effect of some medications.  Adult patients are expected to lie still.

   Like during a bone marrow aspiration. My patient cried before the oncologist arrived, but the doctor didn’t see that. She cried during the injection of the local anesthetic too. Her family looked concerned, but no one spoke up.  Nurses, because of our extended contact with patients, are the emotional thermometer in the room. It is my practice to request from the physician a small dose of sublingual lorazepam to offer the patient before such a procedure, just to take the edge off, but it’s rarely ordered, unless the patient demonstrates high anxiety levels in front of the physician, which indicates the patient might not hold still. The procedure lasted only minutes (the oncologist was skilled), but I winced to see my patient hurt. This patient made it through bravely. The physical pain was quick, then over, but the pain of the procedure was potentiated by the fear of a blood cancer diagnosis. Lorazepam does not control pain. It does ease anxiety.  She was big enough to hold still.

   Perhaps I’m sensitized to this issue because I have been a patient needing a biopsy for a cancer diagnosis too. I remember the white noise of anxiety drowning out my ability to hear all of the information presented to me during the early weeks that my treatment plan unfolded.  The surgeon, who was very good, wanted to do a biopsy of my lump in his office. It’s done all the time. I wanted the lump removed, under conscious sedation. That required an OR, and an anesthesiologist, the surgeon informed me. “That’s what I have insurance for,”  was my reply. I know too much about procedures.  I trusted my surgeon, and I wanted to be out while he did what he needed to do.  A member of  his office staff chided me about the request: “You’re a baby, I’ve had several lumps removed in this office myself, and went back to work afterwards.” I complained to the surgeon about the inappropriate comment.

   Like a frightened child, I didn’t want to lie still.