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The Prince of Pain
The Prize

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Fall 1997
The Prince of Pain
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It was exactly the ammunition Liebeskind, a founder of the International Association for the Study of Pain and the American Pain Society, had been waiting decades for. Finally, he could challenge conventional treatment of pain. "He could now make more aggressive arguments," says science historian Marcia Meldrum. "He could say to doctors, ‘You can dose patients with antibiotics until the cows come home, but insistent pain is dangerous and may counteract all your efforts.'" Soon after, the American Pain Society organized dozens of seminars on undertreatment, and the early '90s saw the opening of the first wave of pain clinics, multidisciplinary centers with physiologists and anesthesiologists, even acupuncturists. Liebeskind's campaign dovetailed nicely with Norman Cousin's message that mood, influenced by pain as well as other factors, could affect the course of disease. For a while, pain treatment became a hot topic in the mainstream press, with articles written on, for instance, cancer pain and arthritis.

Former students of Liebeskind's, including Page, Mayer and Akil, now hold influential positions. And there is one woman, a nurse, who wrote recently of treating a man who was in agony, suicidal, dying of lung cancer. "What I learned in John's classes gave me the confidence to ask the medical personnel whether the man could have more pain medication without threatening his health and safety," she recounts. "As it turned out, they realized he was being undertreated. They increased the dosage to where the man said he was comfortable. A few days later when I saw him again, he was not nearly as preoccupied with killing himself. He was even smiling and joking."

Since the early '90s, the scrutiny of pain therapy has somewhat cooled. "It's nowhere near where we think it should be," says Gayle Page, "but there are pockets where doctors understand and many pain clinics." And there are the irrefutable data, the sum of a lifetime of Liebeskind's humanist vision. During that early morning walk several springs ago, when his wife and son drove up bearing great news, Liebeskind chose not to get into the car. He sent his beloved messengers home and decided to press on alone.

He continues west on Pico, past the Crown Car Wash and St. Timothy's, then turned left on Patricia, around the driving range, and on past the early-bird golfers, now visible through the shaggy eucalyptus along the back nine. He strolled through the wet coolness there, the scientist and crusader and father, walking for a while in his own rich company. With the sun about to break through the cloud cover, John Liebeskind, a fellow on a happy morning walk, a man of good works and devoted friends, a newly minted member of the National Academy of Sciences, felt no pain

Freelance writer Ben Carey writes frequently on the subject of science.


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