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Don’t Take My Benzo!

And Why I Want to Talk About the Remarkable Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke

By Holly Hardman

Yes, don’t take my benzo! I understand the sentiment. This is a notion I could appreciate in years past. I never verbalized it. I didn’t need to. When I was taking Klonopin regularly, I never encountered anyone who would suggest such a thing.   

I thought Klonopin was such a safe drug, such a nothing drug. Klonopin was my reliable stress reliever and sleep enabler. I did once say to my prescribing doctor, but without conviction, that I wondered if I wasn’t mildly or psychologically dependent on Klonopin. I didn’t actually think that I was. Neither did she. She assured me that I showed no signs of abuse or addiction and told me to continue taking it PRN as I had been, emphasizing that there was absolutely nothing alarming about my Klonopin use.

It wasn’t until I decided to taper off the .5 – 1 mg I was taking once or twice a week — actually sometimes once or twice every two or three weeks — that I thought more seriously about life without the prescription. I liked the idea of not taking any prescription drugs.

And no worries, right?

After all, we know what makes addicts, right? They are the unfortunate ones who choose to over-medicate and overuse, going against doctors’ orders, right? And they end up in rehab facilities, right? Where they are helped, right? And all’s well that ends well, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Until February 1st of this year, there lived an incredible physician in New Orleans. Her name was Kiersta Kurtz-Burke. Her obituary arrived in my stream on February 19th. I recognized the name from years back when I was filming a documentary in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I was horrified to learn that this heroic woman, who had everything to live for — a love-filled family, a thriving professional life, and a vast circle of friends, had taken her life. She had been struggling to come off the benzodiazepine Klonopin.

Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke
1968 – 2024
See obituary written by journalist Emily Woodruff 

According to her obituary — Dr. Kurtz-Burke had been prescribed Klonopin for hypothyroidism in 2018.  She had developed a case of depression that she grew to believe was connected to her Klonopin prescription. She wanted to find her way off the medication and had entered a detox treatment center in the belief that she would be helped.

When you live in the benzo harm world, as I do, information like this signals trouble. I immediately contacted Jed Horne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Times-Picayune editor, whose book Breach of Faith served as a guiding tome for research into the New Orleans/Hurricane Katrina backstory while I was in production with my film Good People Go to Hell, Saved People Go to Heaven. 

It is generally accepted that Breach of Faith is the definitive book on Hurricane Katrina. When we filmed in October 2005, the days-long travails of Charity Hospital doctors and patients were already known to the circle of New Orleanians we were interviewing. But it is in Breach of Faith that the Charity Hospital story is laid out in captivating, moment-to-moment detail, covering the heroics of the doctors who remained with their patients in a flooding hospital until everyone could be rescued. Dr. Kurtz-Burke was one of those doctors.

I emailed Jed, telling him that I wanted to write an op-ed about Kiersta and the benzodiazepine prescribing crisis. Through Jed, I was able to connect with some of his former colleagues at the paper.

The op-ed came together pretty quickly.

Here’s an excerpt from the draft:

It keeps happening. The suicides.

Too many of us learn the hard way about the dark nature of benzodiazepines. They can cause acquired brain injury, disrupt hormonal function, and undo the CNS. Some tell-tale symptoms of benzodiazepine harm are worsening anxiety, ongoing cortisol surges, derealization, depersonalization, body pain, akathisia, tinnitus, muscle freezing, air hunger, aphasia, and, yes, suicidal ideation.

Often helpful in the short run, benzodiazepines like Klonopin, Ativan, Valium, or Xanax have a pronounced calming effect that helps with anxieties and troubles such as fear of flying, public speaking, or mourning a death — but too often, ill-informed prescribers have misinformed patients taking them for weeks, months, even years.

As patients, we are not warned about tolerance and interdose withdrawal or the consequences of abrupt cessation…

The piece was a go. The opinion page editor took charge. She made some edits that improved the piece. As requested, I sent the requested photo of myself to accompany the article. She also had some questions about statistics.

I added this to my follow-up draft and included citations:

Over 12% of the population (30.6 million) take benzodiazepines in a single year. Of that number, 83% or 25.3 million people take the drug as directed by a prescriber. At least 10% and as many as 40% of the people who take a benzodiazepine suffer adverse effects. Unfortunately, many develop a long-lasting syndrome called BIND (Benzodiazepine-Induced Neurological Dysfunction).

Landmark Study on BIND
Long-term consequences of benzodiazepine-induced neurological dysfunction: A survey

And I wrote further:

I wish we had exact figures. We need them. This is a public health catastrophe. But no agency or organization that could sponsor a proper study seems to feel compelled to organize or finance one. And motivated groups from the lived-experience, benzo-harmed community lack the funds.

It was happening. This has been a huge goal of mine — seeing the under-the-radar benzodiazepine crisis mainstreamed.

But I had jumped the gun. The editor next informed me that they were going to hold the piece for a week.

A week later, she informed me that the piece would not be running. She said that they must protect, and I quote, “the people who need them.” Need them? When you weigh the pros and cons, risk vs. benefit, even the FDA, with its updated boxed warning re: long-term prescribing (i.e., more than 3-4 weeks), now suggests that prescribers, as well as the public, be apprised of the very real dangers. And, yes, benzos are very helpful for acute and short-term use. But the public should know about the long-term risks, especially because millions of people are taking them for months and years.

I am willing to bet that Dr. Kurtz-Burke was not informed of the risks, even though she was a physician. She was prescribed the drug in 2018, and the updated warning did not go into effect until Sept. 2020. Even now, are patients, including physician patients, receiving effective informed consent?

In an email to the opinion editor, I suggested that we post a clear warning of some sort. I certainly did not want to scare people unnecessarily.

I never received a reply to any of my follow-up emails. She ghosted me.

Remember Silence = Death? For AIDS? Here we are, after decades and billions of dollars in profits for pharma from benzodiazepines with millions upon millions of prescriptions written, the benzodiazepine harm epidemic continues as a suppressed story.

This is a non-pathogenic epidemic. It is a contagion, nevertheless. Our culture is so habituated to taking pills to handle any medical, behavioral, or psychological concern. The cure for the benzo epidemic is not new medicine. We can cure it with information and safe treatment. Informed consent should become the norm. Knowledge-based patient protections need to be implemented. Programs suitable for those struggling with withdrawal and protracted syndrome, like peer-to-peer support, need to be put into place. Doctors need to help those who choose to discontinue with patient-guided, symptom-based tapers. Discontinuing the medication must be the patient’s choice.

The word needs to get out!

Not long before Kiersta took her life, another New Orleans doctor, Michelle Fernandez, died by suicide in December 2023. Dr. Fernandez had been on four medications. One was a benzo. When her prescribing doctor retired, Dr. Fernandez could not find another doctor to write her prescriptions. In essence, she was cold-turkeyed. I can only imagine the absolute torture she must have been experiencing before she chose to take her life.

Dr. Michelle Christine Fernandez 
was forced to abruptly stop Ativan

Since Dr. Kurtz-Burke died, in my community, we lost one more physician. Before departing this mortal coil, another heroic physician made clear to those who knew and loved her that it was the benzodiazepine Ativan that had killed her. She equated it to murder.

Three extraordinary doctors. Gone within months of each other.

“Don’t take my benzo!” I agree, but with a deeper understanding. Those who take them need protection. Those who are on them should never stop taking the medication abruptly. Once prescribed, the patient needs to be assured of access to a reliable prescriber. Those who have been taking a benzodiazepine long-term should never be forced to stop.

Yet this happens in homes, in doctor’s offices, and in detox facilities across the country every day. There is so much information about benzodiazepines that needs to reach the public. The real benzodiazepine story needs mainstreaming. Urgently. Too many are suffering. Too many remain at risk.

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—Holly Hardman, Director/Producer of As Prescribed