Todd Papianou, a physical education teacher at Mountain Valley High School in Rumford, battled years of severe pain with prescription medication, including opioids, and has seen both sides of the opioid issue. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Todd Papianou is haunted by how easily he could have developed an addiction to the opioid medications he was prescribed to handle chronic pain.

The 55-year-old high school teacher from Rumford describes himself as an active guy. He teaches physical education and he and his family do a lot of gravity sports, such as whitewater kayaking, skiing and climbing.

“All kinds of sports where you get hurt,” he said.

But it was actually sitting on the couch — watching the Boston Red Sox win the 2004 World Series, no less — that he thinks did him in. He’s had two major surgeries to correct fused spinal discs in his neck, one in 2007 and the second in 2015.

The pain from the fused discs, which Papianou described as so awful it was “criminal,” would start at his neck, radiate down his right shoulder and send a constant “burning” sensation through his elbow.

In the months leading up to each of the surgeries, Papianou credits his prescribed “Percocet-muscle relaxer mix” as what kept the excruciating pain at bay. It turned him into “sort of like a zombie,” but with the drugs in his system, “that was enough to take the edge off” of the screaming aches so that he could at least manage his day-to-day life.

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“I wasn’t suicidal with the pain, because I got too much to live for, but life was so compromised,” he said. “Like the amount of school I missed and teaching I missed. And then when I was here, I was just like, trying to coach and teach was just awful during those years.”

Amid all of that, though, he and his wife were both hyper-cognizant of what could happen if he wasn’t careful with the painkillers. As a former wilderness emergency medical technician, he was familiar with different medications and knew the potential dangers of opioids. Papianou also said he lucked out with his pain management doctor and neurosurgeon, both of whom were attentive to his pain but careful with how they prescribed his medications.

Even still, “I was really nervous and scared.” He heard stories of people who developed an addiction to their prescribed painkillers and how it destroyed their lives.

“I was really leery.”

Todd Papianou coaches the tennis team Thursday at Mountain Valley High School in Rumford. He says he knows firsthand how dangerous and addictive opioid pain medicine can be. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

But the idea of going without the pills for even a day put a pit in his stomach. Like the time right before his first surgery in 2007.

Papianou recalled it was a Friday afternoon, heading into a long weekend. His surgery was scheduled for Tuesday. He and his wife were heading up to a friend’s camp when he realized he would run out of his medications before the weekend was over.

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“And I was like, ‘I’m gonna run out and I can’t run out and be run out. I just can’t. I just knew because the pain was unbelievable as it would develop.”

He practically tracked down his primary care physician at the local hospital and asked her to give him just a few more pills to get him through the weekend. She said “no.”

He remembered that he felt “abandoned, and that her own bias as another human didn’t see through (to) the compassion and empathy, genuine empathy for what I was feeling, I guess. And I just felt angry,” he said.

Around the same time, three top executives from Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty for “misbranding” OxyContin, the highly addictive painkiller.

“I remember following it quite closely and being really upset that because so many people were being affected by oxycodone that doctors weren’t allowed to properly do their job and prescribe it to me,” Papianou said.

“And I had a success story.”

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But it wasn’t easy. Especially after the second surgery, Papianou said he could feel the “power” of the drugs and how difficult it was to get off of them. But he made a pact with himself — and his wife — that he wouldn’t take the painkillers for more than a week after each of the surgeries to help with his recovery. His doctors offered him a second weeks’ worth of medications but he was adamant: “I need to quit as soon as I can.”

He’s still angry about the times he was denied the prescriptions that helped him just get through the day and he’s especially angry at people like the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma, for “compromising my proper pain management availability. That I was in the kind of pain that — I hate them. I hate them to their core for what it did to me and how much pain I was in.”

Papianou said he hopes that speaking out about his experiences will “make life better for other people.”

Because he saw both sides of the situation.

On the one hand, he said he was denied the medications he needed to manage his pain. But on the other hand, “I can easily see — I mean easily see — that I would be lucky to be alive right now if all of the things didn’t fall into place the way they did and (with) who I ended up with for doctors.”

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