Painkiller: Is Riley Based on a Real Person? How Did He Die?

Netflix’s ‘Painkiller’ shows the ugly side of the pharmaceutical industry, revealing the corporate greed that threw America into one of the worst healthcare crises. It begins with the death of Arthur Sackler. He leaves behind a business in shambles, and to bring it back to its former glory, his nephew, Richard Sackler, comes up with an idea of a highly potent opioid. He intends to make money off of pain, and this is where OxyContin comes into the picture.

Richard’s company, Purdue Pharma, sends the drug out into the world with the promise that it can make everyone’s life better. Soon, however, its adverse effects start to show as people fall into a spiral of addiction. Thousands of people lose their lives, and many families are destroyed because Purdue and Sackler were not truthful about the true nature of the drug. While the show takes a fictional approach to this story, the pain and death of the real people affected by the opioid crisis is not made up. Riley was one of the people who lost their lives to the vicious cycle of addiction. Here’s what we know about him.

How Did Riley Die?

At the beginning of the final episode of ‘Painkiller,’ we meet Riley’s parents, who reveal that their son died at the age of 28. He was put on OxyContin to help with the pain related to a back injury. At first, the drug helped, but then it pulled him into addiction. Riley tried to get help and did everything he could to get himself off OxyContin. In the end, the drug claimed his life.

While the Netflix series doesn’t go into any more detail about Riley and his struggle with addiction, it gives the audience a similar story through which they can understand how a person can get stuck in the cycle of addiction. In the show, we meet Glen Kryger, a hardworking man whose life spirals out of control following a workplace injury. He suffers from chronic back pain, as a remedy for which he is prescribed OxyContin by his doctor. At first, the drug works for the 12-hour cycle, but then it starts to wear off earlier.

Image Credit: Keri Anderson/Netflix

To counter this, the doctor increases the dosage of OxyContin, which makes Glen further dependent on it. With time, Glen gets addicted to OxyContin and watches his whole life crumble while the addiction takes hold of him. At one point, he tries to get help and gets better, but the relapse worsens things for him. Through Glen, we can imagine Riley’s journey and his struggle with the very thing that was supposed to help him get his life back on track.

The problem with OxyContin was that the company marketed it as a perfect opioid that was potent but not something you could get addicted to. Purdue focused on the 12-hour effectiveness of OxyContin, which gave it a leg-up on other drugs in the market. To keep the narrative intact, the company encouraged the doctors to increase the dosage of the drugs. Despite reports of addiction and other concerns by doctors and its salespeople, Purdue didn’t pay any attention to the problem.

In an investigation, the LA Times went through thousands of pages of confidential documents and records of Purdue Pharma. According to it, the company was aware of the ineffectiveness of the drug for a period of 12 hours. Reportedly, many patients in its clinical trials reported that the drug wore off sooner than that. Records also showed that several people, including many doctors and its own salespeople, reached out to Purdue about the potential of OxyContin addiction in patients. When the concern about the early wearing off was highlighted, Purdue advised the doctors to increase the dosage, even if it meant a higher risk of overdose and death.

Reportedly, OxyContin falls in the same chemical family as heroin, which makes it an extremely addictive substance. Not taking OxyContin can bring back the pain they were trying to mediate on top of withdrawal symptoms like nausea, anxiety, and body aches. This can become “a very powerful motivator for people to take more drugs.” Purdue kept this information from people, which led to the opioid crisis and resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands, a part of which were people like Riley, seeking medical help for their genuine problems.

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