The grateful leper and the miracle of morphine by Katherine Pettus

Categories: Opinion.

Luke 17:11-19 tells how Jesus healed ten lepers, only one of whom comes back to thank him once he realizes he is ‘made clean.’

The ungrateful nine reported to the priest as instructed but failed to return and thank him for the miracle.

The story made me wonder what would happen if those of us fortunate enough to live in countries where morphine and pain relief are largely available and affordable for surgical and cancer patients, acted like the one grateful leper and gave thanks for the miracle of that blessing.

Anyone who has been in agonizing pain and had it relieved, or witnessed how morphine can relieve pain, understands the miracle. But do we give thanks or just take it for granted?

The science of gratitude tells us that doing so, “in addition to giving individual benefits, may also help to strengthen ties with friends, loved ones, and those in our wider communities.” Our wider community is the world, where the vast majority of people (85% according to the World Health Organization) suffer and die from the same diseases and traumatic injuries we do (or worse!) with no access to pain relief.

There is a 5- to 63-fold difference in the estimated median consumption of morphine between high-income countries and lower income countries according to the WHO report “Left Behind in Pain.

The unfair distribution of opioids favors wealthy of countries such as mine, where morphine is generally available because we have strong health systems and trained workers, and disfavors the poor countries.

What if, collectively, we could show more gratitude for that blessing? Could it translate into better availability for our brothers and sisters who need the medicines as much as we do when they are in dire straights?

Cognizant of the global inequity underlying global access to, and availability of internationally controlled essential medicines, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) dubbed its 2022-2023 campaign to raise global awareness of the issue, #NoPatientLeftBehind. But high level efforts to raise awareness of UN member states obligations to ensure availability of these medicines, such as in the Brussels conference last week with experts, ambassadors and ministry oficials, is not enough.

Explicit expression of gratitutude for the blessings of adequate access to pain relief in the upper income countries can transform awareness raising into budgets, policies, training courses, and eventually patient wellbeing.

Pope Francis told us today in the Sunday Angelus that “trust frees, always; fear paralyses. Remember: fear paralysestrust liberates.” Policy makers who control health and drug control budgets can trust that 21st century medical and regulatory science can be woven into resilient policies that provide education, ethics, and practical skills to doctors, nurses, pharmacists and regulatory authorities charged with ensuring that people’s suffering is relieved to the greatest extent possible.

Fearing that medicines will be diverted and create public health problems such as that experienced in Northamerica, will paralyse our efforts to to train health workers in safe prescription and ensure global equity and fairness in the availability of pain relief. Gratitude and trust will allow the ship to sail, freeing it from its moorings and weaving us into a more sustainable and beloved community.


Katherine Pettus is a Palliative care paraclete advocating for the right of patients to receive internationally controlled essential medicines to relieve preventable pain and suffering.

This article is republished from Katherine’s blog of November 23rd 2023 with permission.

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