Siobhan Reynolds, RIP

Monday, December 26th, 2011

I’m saddened to learn this morning that Siobhan Reynolds was killed over the weekend in a plane crash.

I met Reynolds several years ago when I attended a forum on Capitol Hill on the under-treatment of pain. Her story about her husband’s chronic pain was so heartbreaking it moved me to take an interest in the issue. I eventually commissioned and edited a paper on the DEA and pain treatment while I was working for Cato.

Reynolds was tireless and fierce. She ran her advocacy group the Pain Relief Network on a thin budget. She often used her own money to travel to towns and cities where she felt prosecutors were unfairly targeting a doctor. Then she’d fight back. And sometimes she’d win. The DEA and federal prosecutors she fought weren’t really accustomed to that. They were accustomed to holding self-promoting press conferences where they’d hold up big bags of pills, thus winning glowing write-ups from doting, unskeptical journalists. Reynolds put those bags of pills into context. She talked about the lives made livable with opiate therapy. She encouraged pain patients whose lives these doctors saved to speak up and speak out. And she educated journalists.

There aren’t very many people who can claim that they’ve personally changed the public debate about an issue. Reynolds could. Before her crusade, no one was really talking about the under-treatment of pain. The media was still wrapped up in scare stories about “accidental addiction” to prescription painkillers and telling dramatic (and often false) tales about patients whose lazy doctors got them hooked on Oxycontin. Reynolds toured the country to point out that, in fact, the real problem is that pain patients are suffering, particularly patients with long-term chronic pain. And because of the government’s harassment, there are increasingly fewer doctors willing to treat them. Thanks to Reynolds, the major newsweeklies, the New York Times, and a number of other national media outlets began asking if the DEA’s war on pain doctors had gone too far.

Reynolds’ passion stemmed from watching her ex-husband agonize from his pain, and later her belief that his death was due to his inability to get treatment. She was haunted by the prospect that her son could inherit the same condition and face the same obstacles. What infuriated her  most was that this was never a problem of not knowing what relieves chronic pain. This wasn’t about the need for more research. Her husband had found relief in high-dose opioid therapy. The problem was that in its ceaseless efforts to stop people from getting high, the government had blocked that relief, imprisoned the doctor who administered it, and thus condemned her husband to suffer. (Watch The Chilling Effect, the movie Reynolds produced about her ex-husband’s fight here.)

Reynolds was admirably persistent. I often thought she was often a bit too idealistic, or at least that she set her goals too high. She told me once that she wouldn’t consider her work done until the Supreme Court declared the Controlled Substances Act unconstitutional. That’s an admirable goal, but not a particularly practical one. She often frustrated efforts to build a coalition on the issue because she’d grown weary of medical organizations and academics who, while concerned about the issue, she thought were too cowardly to take a more aggressive stand.

But Reynolds did begin to win her battles. She deserves a good deal of the credit for getting Richard Paey out of prison. She got some sentences overturned, and connected accused doctors to attorneys who know the proper way to fight for them in court. That led to some acquittals.

Of course, the government doesn’t like a rabble-rouser. It’s especially wary of rabble-rousers who start to accumulate victories. And so as Reynolds’ advocacy began to move the ball and get real results, the government hit back. When Reynolds began a campaign on behalf of Kansas physician Stephen Schneider, who had been indicted for over-prescribing painkillers, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Treadway launched a blatantly vindictive attack on Reynolds’ right to free speech. Treadway opened a criminal investigation into Reynolds and her organization, attempting to paint Reynolds’ advocacy as obstruction of justice. Treadway then issued a sweeping subpoena for all email correspondence, phone records, and other documents that, had Reynolds complied, would have meant the end of her organization. Treadway wanted records of Reynolds’ private conversations with attorneys, doctors, and pain patients and their families. It was unconscionable. The government was demanding that she turn over all records of her conversations with suffering patients. (Some of whom undoubtedly sought out extra-legal ways to relieve their pain, since the government had made it impossible for them to find legal relief.)

So Reynolds fought the subpoena, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And she lost. Not only did she lose, but the government, with compliance from the federal courts, was able to keep the entire fight sealed. The briefs for the case are secret. The judges’ rulings are secret. Reynolds was barred from sharing her own briefs with the press. Perversely, Treadway had used the very grand jury secrecy intended to protect Reynolds as a gag to censor her. The case was a startling example not only of how far a prosecutor will go to tear down a critic, but of how much power they have to do so.

The sad thing is that it worked. The Pain Relief Network went under. Reynolds also lost a good deal of her own money. She was never charged with any crime. But that was never the point. It was a transparent and malicious effort to neutralize a pestering critic. And it was successful.  (I wrote a piece for Slate on Treadway’s vendetta against Reynolds.) Despite all that, the last time I spoke with Reynolds she working on plans to start a new advocacy group for pain patients.

Reynolds was an unwearying, unwavering activist for personal freedom. She not only became a martyr for the rights of pain patients, but also for free expression and political dissent.

And she died fighting.

Rest in peace.

UPDATE: More tributes to Reynolds from Jacob Sullum, David Borden, and Robert Higgs. Higgs quotes from an email he sent to Reynolds two days before her death:

You have had no way to have known, but you have been one of my heroes (and I have very few) ever since I learned, more or less by chance, about your efforts on behalf of people denied pain relief by the whole congeries of sadistic government laws, functionaries, and activities aimed at keeping them in pain. I have the greatest respect for you and the few others who have the courage to do something concrete to fight the power.

Please accept my very best wishes for a happy Christmas and for better days to come. And please know, too, of the great esteem in which I hold you.

UPDATE II: Richard Paey’s wife Linda left this in the comments:

Siobhan, an amazing force focused on defending the rights of people in pain and their doctors, she was relentless in this pursuit. My husband and I owe her a debt of gratitude, one that we could never repay. Siobhan was responsible for moving the nation to support the release of my husband, Richard Paey from a Florida prison. Her impact on pain patients and the issue of undertreatment of pain is her legacy. We will all miss her loud and strong voice. My heart and my prayers goes out to her son.



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60 Responses to “Siobhan Reynolds, RIP”

  1. #1 |  John Chase | 

    In response to a prior question, the prosecutor who hounded Paey through 3 trials in 10 years shifted to private practice about the time of Gov. Crist’s full pardon. I don’t know the circumstances of that shift, and I’m not sure where he is today.

  2. #2 |  Siobhan Reynolds, RIP | The Agitator « painpolicy | 

    […] Siobhan Reynolds, RIP | The Agitator Posted by Pain policy & palliative care ⋅ December 28, 2011 ⋅ Leave a Comment Siobhan Reynolds, RIP | The Agitator. […]

  3. #3 |  Ronald Libby | 

    Siobhan’s tragic passing is a blow to the movement she virtually started single-handed to guarantee access to pain-relieving medications for millions who suffer from chronic pain. She was tireless in championing this noble cause. Even faced with the enormous resources of the federal government she persevered. I have great admiration for Siopbhan’s devotion to others. My heart goes out to her son, her family and many friends. We have lost a true champion of a basic human right–to be free from needless suffering.

    Ron Libby

  4. #4 |  Siobhan Reynolds, Lioness Rampant (1961-2011) | The Puffington Host | 

    […] needs some introduction, and you will get some from this post. But you should also first read Radley Balko’s tribute at The Agitator for […]

  5. #5 |  Carol Hammond | 

    Today I learned about Siobhan Reynolds. I wish that I could have known her and her work. My Rheumatologist is retiring; he was my Dr for almost 20 years and treated me for fibromyalgia pain. My grandmother and aunt also had this terrible illness. Some doctors still don’t believe in the disease buy almost all Rheumatologist do. You literally have pain everywhere; skin, ligaments, soft tissue and in my case it never goes away; pain level is consistantly an 7-8, I am now 67 years old. I own my own business and it is extremely hard to handle all the work. For years I was taking opiates until Oxycontin became available. It is true that your body becomes dependant on all of these pain relievers but we are not “addicted”. Many people have had good outcomes with Oxycontin. It does not take away all the pain but it allows me to go through the day with the ability to deal with day to day chores or interactions with other people. For me there is no high and I have been able to stay on 20mg for many years. The sad thing is we that need pain killers are NOT the abusers but we and the doctors are being punished because of those addicts that are selling and using Oxycontin…if oxy. was not available it would be something else. My Dr just retired…I am left with trying to find a doctor that will continue on the same plan he had for me for almost 20 years. I now live in a small northern state and few if any doctor will prescribe pain pills….I will have to continue to travel 400 miles twice a year to see a doctor and then I must fax in my order monthly and the pharmacy must have a written copy of the prescription every single month. I have to pay around 150. each month for that one prescription! I am on medicare now and I am afraid that the government will put a halt to that drug. Many people live with horrible pain, many take their own lives…my grandmother did….her pain was like mine and I am scared now that I will not be able to live with this pain. Those people who do not have daily pain have no idea what it is like and many of them are our decision makers and the ones writing articles about drug abuse and running down the very drugs that are helping us. I am so sad to hear about Siobhan Reynolds. Her shoes will not be easy to fill and many of us will suffer and have to fight to get a doctor that will help us. It makes you feel like a junkie when the doctors are too afraid to do what is right. I wish they all could experience the kind of pain that we do for just a little while. God help us….but we must fight for our rights too. The problem with doing that is we hurt so bad we can not tackle the things that Siobhan Reynolds did…we have enough trouble just living day to day. We need to rally online and get organized. Please, count me in

  6. #6 |  Linda Paey | 

    Our worry is very real, the prosecutor that dragged Richard through three trials, Scott Andringa, is running for a Pinellas County judge position his father leaves open as he retires. I fully expect he will get it because nepatism is favored by the political system in Florida. Numerous friends have suggested we move out of this area, we may seriously entertain this option if Mr Andringa is indeed elected next year.

  7. #7 |  day | 

    Siobhan was the most couragous woman IV ever known. She changed my view on government. She made people wake up and see what was really in front of them not just what the government wanted to been seen. She wasn’t afraid to stand up and fight for what she knew was right. She will be missed so much. She’s a hero and a fierce fighter of injustic.. she believed in the constitution with all her heart and what this country stands for…..

  8. #8 |  Remembering a Drug Activist: Siobhan Reynolds: 1961-2011 | Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society | 

    […] lamented that she felt she was fighting a losing battle. But, as the Agitator’s Radley Balko notes, few people “can claim that they personally changed the public debate about an issue. […]

  9. #9 |  Dr. Julie Marks | 

    I knew this amazing and simply brilliant woman for over thirty years.
    Her compassion, tenacity, and depth of understanding about
    the essential use of opiates for cancer and severe pain patients
    has saved many lives and will continue to do so as she enters
    a new realm leaving us to continue her critically important
    mission. I am a pain sufferer and so is my husband and without
    appropriate treatment, millions die of untreated pain reported
    as strokes and heart attacks. Siobhan just finished a book on
    this subject educating the masses about this silent tragedy
    that ends the lives of of too many wonderful people. I never
    thought her efforts would end in this horrible and heart
    breaking tragedy. I feel for her son Ronan who is afflicted
    with the same debilitating disease of his father and now
    remains without parents. If anyone knows where I can find him,
    please e-mail I want to help the family in
    any way possible. RIP, my dear friend!

  10. #10 |  Random notes: July 13, 2012. « Whipped Cream Difficulties | 

    […] from intractable pain. Not just that; the government has stomped on the First Amendment by going after patient advocacy organizations, and has even threatened to shut down pharmacies for filling […]