‘We’re not all drug addicts’ — The plight of chronic pain patients during the opioid epidemic

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CEDAR SPRINGS, Mich. -- Every day, Matt VanEtten lives with excruciating pain.

"We’ve all had ice cream headaches. Picture that 24 hours a day," he told FOX 17 News. "It feels like your head's literally going to explode from the inside out."

Debilitating headaches have crippled his livelihood; the result of a bad car crash nearly 10 years ago.

At the time, VanEtten was working in the HVAC business, driving through downtown Grand Rapids.

"I went through the S-curve...and I had a 150-gallon water heater in the back of my truck," he explained. "And, it rolled, and I hit black ice... rolled 2 and 1/2 times, and then slammed down on its top.... I don't know how long I was in there before [first responders] finally cut me out."

VanEtten suffered serious injuries to his shoulder and neck. Surgeries, and months of recovery followed, but he says it's been a progression down hill ever since.  He's unable to work now due to his chronic pain and is currently on disability.

Along with receiving injections in his neck to manage the pain, VanEtten also takes opioids.

'I'm not a junkie'

For seven years now, the grandfather in Cedar Springs has relied on Oxycodone to make it through the day.

"I’m only allowed to have 20 mg a day," he said. “There’s no buzz. There’s barely any pain relief."

VanEtten said there is nothing that doctors can do surgically to fix his pain problem. The injections he receives help temporarily, but he says they often wear off before he is able to receive another that would be covered by insurance.

And since he's living on a fixed income, he is unable to afford the injections more frequently.

"I've spent, in the last 9 years, easily $500 dollars on pills. Every kind of orthopedic pill on the planet I've tried. And they don't work."

For months, he has pleaded with his doctor to increase his dosage of Oxcycodone.

"I found out the hard way, what the saying means, between a rock and a hard place...because I'm being squeezed by the rock and the hard place. Because my doctor's hands are tied," explained VanEtten. "I'm not a junkie... I can't get the pain drugs I need, because of the idiots that are hooked on hillbilly heroin, which is another name for opiate addiction."

VanEtten is one of thousands of pain patients in West Michigan whose access to certain medications is being threatened due to the opioid epidemic.

'A huge problem in Michigan'

The opioid epidemic has exploded across the US and in Michigan.

According to the CDC, more tham 140 Americans die from overdoses a day. More than half a million have been killed by opioid overdoses from 2000-2015.

"It's a huge problem in Michigan, and it has been a huge problem for 10 years now," said Steve Alsum, Executive Director of The Red Project in Grand Rapids. "It is the leading cause of accidental death statewide. It actually surpasses automobile accidents as the leading cause of death in Michigan."

The non-profit's overdose prevention program, which began in 2008, has greatly expanded in recent years; providing Naloxone rescue kits to respond to an emergency overdose situation.

Alsum estimates their efforts so far have helped save at least 600 lives in West Michigan. Still, he recognizes the need for opioids to be available for safe, legal use.

"For some people, opioid-based pain medications are the only thing that allow [pain patients] to live a normal life, with the pain they're dealing with."

'Feeling the Pinch'

Like pain patients, doctors are dealing with their own dilemna. Guidelines and recommendations on how to prescribe opioids, and in what quantities, are changing in the wake of the opioid epidemic.

Lisa Pearson, the Executive Director of Michigan Pain Consultants, said keeping up with the changes is a daily struggle within the practice. Pearson anticipates having to add staff to accommodate the new rules and regulations.

"We believe it is all very well intended," Pearson told FOX 17 News. "We believe that policies that do limit access to opioids are very well intended, but we do feel in some instances, that they are creating such a burden that patients suffer. Practices suffer."

"True, legitimate chronic pain patients are getting caught in the middle of this, and it's unfortunate."

Pearson said there are guidelines from insurance companies to contend with- even pharmacies like CVS are following its own rules. A package of bills currently moving through Lansing could also impact opioid regulation in Michigan.

"We want to do what's right for the patients, but ultimately, it's very, very cumbersome," Pearson said. "There is this pinch that we're really feeling, like chronic pain patients are experiencing now, like they've never experienced before."

"In the meantime, there's patients not getting the medication that they were once able to get," she added. "Maybe providers decide they're going to write the prescription differently than they used to, which can cause risk for the patient and the provider."

Michigan Pain Consultants is the largest pain management practice in West Michigan, with about 25,000 active patients.

Dr. Kevin Fitzegerald is one of the 14 physicians on staff. With more than 30 years of specializing in pain medicine, he says opioids are the last resort following physical therapy and behavioral treatment.

"These people are desparate for some kind of hope, some kind of relief," Dr. Fitzgerald explained. "With a long experience of treating patients' pain, we feel that we can use this tool appropriately. But now, it's being limited by insurance companies, by pharmacies. They are guidelines that were brought up, that we weren't able to collaborate. "

Dr. Fitzgerald said it always comes down to "judicious use of opioids." He and other doctors are cognizant of the dangers of over-prescribing, which could potentially lead to losing their license to practice.

"That is a real fear," he said. "And we are subject to using good judgement. If [doctors] are felt to be over-prescribing, a 'pill mill,' people have gone to jail for that, there's been large fines. So it's real."

"There are a lot of patients, who are using the medications appropriately, that are doing all the things we're asking them. That has improved their lives, that has made their function better... You hate to see them get punished for doing the right thing."

Pain patients like VanEtten have to abide by a strict contract, which includes random urine tests, to ensure they are not abusing alcohol, or any other drugs while receiving opiod prescriptions.

'As good as it's ever gonna be'

In Cedar Springs, VanEtten continues to be largely confined to his home due to his condition.

"I sit here, writhing in pain," he said. "I can't even go out shopping, and go to dinner with my wife, because it hurts too much."

However, since our interview in early October, VanEtten has received some good news from his doctor: he can now take up to three Oxycodone pills to manage his pain each day.

VanEtten said it won't completely solve the problem, but said it's "as good as it's ever gonna be."

He still fears that all opioids will be outlawed one day, leaving him and so many others out in the cold, in agony every day. The thought merely adds to the frustration he's already feeling.

"Let us, between me and my doctor, let us decide what's better for me," he said. "Just because we go to pain clinics and we take opioids, we're not all drug addicts. We're just people trying to live our version of a normal life."

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  • DAVE

    I am so sick of being lied to by the medical community and our elected officials , when I talked to my state rep not too long ago he said nobody should prevent anyone from seeing the Dr that will help them and nobody should place limits on what said Dr can do. Then when I brought up this package of bills he said that there was no such package nor were they planning on it even though at least one of these bills was introduced last year.

  • Jodi

    I think it’s nice to finally see an article written about chronic pain patients. I am one as well. I haven’t seen any articles that a doctor has actually stood by our side in this issue. What a wonderful thing to have your doctor defend you. I am in IL, and am scared that I am going to lose any medication that I have prescribed. I also do the urine drug screening tests and follow all the rules. I am actually honestly having anxiety issues over worrying about the amount of pain I would be in. I think that is actually making my pain worse right now. I fear even going to the doctor the next time. I feel bad for the people who are losing their pain medications just because people are getting addicted to heroin or other meds that they were probably never prescribed anyway. I think there are more alcohol and tobacco related deaths in this country than opioid deaths. I saw the president talk about his brother being an alcoholic. I don’t see him doing anything about alcohol. I don’t understand their thinking. I understand that people who have addictions need help, and I do think that helping them is what we should be doing. The addicts are always going to find a way to get high if they so choose too. We can’t stop them by going after doctors who are trying to help their chronic pain patients. We need to focus more on drug cartels that are selling heroin cheap and sometimes laced with carfentinyl. That is where the government needs to be looking at, not hurting us for having pain that cannot be fixed with anymore surgeries, or some God awful medications that are supposed to be for people with seizure disorders. One of those type of meds has caused neurological issues and I’ve been already off of it for a year and a half. Please keep trying to report these type of stories. We need help from someone who can help us.

  • Shannon Tuten

    PLEASE do not use the term “epidemic” and epidemic implies it is an INFECTIOUS disease since it is not then it CANNOT be an epidemic,