Chronic Pain Sufferers Say They're Paying the Price for Opioid Epidemic

Scott Garrett says he's tired of the opioid epidemic's mob mentality.
Scott Garrett says he's tired of the opioid epidemic's mob mentality. courtesy Scott Garrett
The pain felt as if someone took an ice pick, stuck it in a fireplace and rammed it between Scott Garrett’s neck and shoulders. He called it the worst pain he’d ever endured, and each time he tried to raise his head, it felt like someone was stabbing him again. It sent him straight to the emergency room.

After multiple spinal surgeries, one of which was botched, the Dallas native was left with steel rods and screws keeping his neck in place and chronic pain that he compares to someone taking a baseball bat and beating him on the back of the neck. He feels it in his sleep.

A chronic pain sufferer for years, Garrett said opioids are the only medication that make him feel like a regular person. Now, like other chronic pain sufferers, he said he feels like a criminal and junkie. He blames the Trump administration's crackdown on opioids.

“There are actually pain patients who are committing suicide because their medications have been cut down so far or completely eliminated by gun-shy doctors, and they just choose not to live with the pain and humiliation anymore,” he wrote when he first reached out to the Observer in early December.

Like Garrett, Ewa Fosmoen, a chronic pain sufferer from Sterling Heights, Michigan, blames the media for spreading "fake news" about the opioid epidemic, which Garrett points out affects less than 1 percent of the population. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates 2.1 million out of 323.1 million people in the U.S. abuse opioids.

Fake news has become a popular term to dismiss news listeners don't want to hear. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, "Opioids (including prescription opioids, heroin, and fentanyl) killed more than 33,000 people in 2015, more than any year on record. Nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid."

Reports of a rapid increase in opioid deaths are true, but that's cold comfort for people who aren't abusing the drugs but who, like Fosmoen, are just trying to deal with the pain since their doctors started cutting opioid medication in response to the growing cases of abuse.

“When Trump cries the fake news, when he says it, then what are we supposed to do?” she asked. “I feel like a fucking criminal. I feel like I did something wrong.”

Some chronic pain sufferers are turning to street drugs to self-medicate when they run out of their pills before the end of the month.

“I am out 10 days early every month,” wrote one anonymous chronic pain sufferer in an email to the Observer. “The tablets I procured from elderly neighbors on fixed incomes sufficed for six months until they too had their medications tapered. My offering of double the previous price still left me unable to obtain enough to get me through the last third of the month.

“Then came the 24 hours of cold turkey withdrawal,” he continued. “I finally broke down and did something I swore I would never do. Pale, clammy and sick, I purchased my first gram of heroin to alleviate the pain and withdrawal. A Google search and a trip to the local gas station later (to buy a lighter), I was now part of the problem, a statistic in the bathroom inhaling vapor off a bead of heroin.”

Garrett, who receives disability payments, compares the war on opioids to the demonization of marijuana in the 1980s. Recently, several Texas counties filed federal lawsuits against opioid manufacturers like Purdue. The Observer began hearing from chronic pain patients after running a cover story about the lawsuits.

“Look at marijuana now,” Garrett said.

Now, marijuana is being used to treat epilepsy, headaches, cancer, glaucoma, nerve pain, muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis, nausea from chemotherapy, poor appetite, and weight loss caused by chronic illness and Crohn’s disease, according to WebMD.

The opioid demonization, Garrett said, has made it harder for chronic pain sufferers like him, and he believes more will end up in the street if the government keeps telling doctors how to practice medicine.

“It’s just like living in hell,” he said. “It’s just hell. That’s exactly what it is. You can’t have any kind of life. If you’re hurting and need to take an extra one, you can’t because then you’ll be short at the end of the month. You run out, and you are screwed. If you lose them, or someone puts a gun to your head and takes them, or maybe you somehow trip and fall and drop them in the toilet and split your head open in 18 places, you’re not getting another script. That’s it.”

“There are actually pain patients who are committing suicide because their medications have been cut down so far or completely eliminated by gun-shy doctors, and they just choose not to live with the pain and humiliation." – Scott Garrett

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That’s why he keeps his prescription locked in a 200-pound safe.

Garrett said he first started noticing his neck problems after a jet ski slammed into his head at Grapevine Lake about five years ago. It split his head open, and the gash required 30 stitches. An orthopedic surgeon told him that four of his cervical discs in his neck were completely gone.

“It’s just bone on bone, and you’ve got nerves there crushed between them,” he recalled the surgeon saying.

He put off the surgery and started taking Oxycontin for the pain and receiving injections for about a year, but he was still able to work at a car dealership because of the pain medication. He was no longer seeing the surgeon but saw a pain management doctor for the medication, not just for his neck injury but also a rotator cuff tear in his left shoulder and a bad left knee.

click to enlarge Garrett's X-ray after his first surgery, which he says the surgeon botched. - COURTESY SCOTT GARRETT
Garrett's X-ray after his first surgery, which he says the surgeon botched.
Courtesy Scott Garrett
The pain management doctor pushed Garrett to see another surgeon at Forest Park Medical Center. His previous surgeon had allowed him to put off the surgery, but his new one told him in December 2014 that he needed to do it right away. Garrett said he was under the impression that it was a simple procedure, one the surgeon claimed to have done countless times each year and would allow him to return to work at the car dealership.

The simple procedure consisted of taking some cadaver bone, sticking it between four of his vertebrae and fusing it all together using steel rods and screws. Garrett says the surgeon used the wrong kind of bone and didn't tighten the screws, causing one of them to work its way out and nearly impale his trachea.

“I had to have emergency [spinal] surgery before I bled to death or choked on my own blood,” he says. “I was going to try to sue him, but he got indicted and no lawyer would take my case.”

Twenty-one people involved with Forest Park Medical Center were charged in a federal indictment in December 2016 for a massive health care fraud scheme that included $40 million in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for patient referrals. The U.S. Department of Justice claimed owners Alan Beauchamp, Richard Toussaint Jr., Wade Barker and Wilton Burt set their own prices for services and received a substantially higher reimbursement rate from insurance companies.

Three months after their indictment, Toussaint pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to pay health care bribes and kickbacks and one count of offering or paying illegal remuneration and aiding and abetting under the Travel Act, U.S. Attorney John Parker of the Northern District of Texas announced in a March 17 press release.

“The constant pain and financial stress broke apart my family. I lost my marriage, my daughter, my income, my home and my dignity." – Scott Garrett

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Garrett said the Forest Park surgeon “screwed up his surgery,” which he estimates cost between $300,000 and $400,000, forcing him to have another one.

“They tell you that it’s a quick fix, and then you have the surgery and learn differently. ‘You had four vertebrae fused together. You got steel rods and screws in your neck. You’re never going to be the same as you were before. You’re never going to be the same again,’” he recalled the surgeon telling him.

Garrett first started noticing signs of the Trump administration's opioid crackdown in doctors' offices after his surgeries. Doctors hung signs that alerted patients to the fact that they would no longer be prescribing anxiety or pain medication. Then, his pain management doctor started talking to him about weaning him off the only thing he said made him feel like he could function.

Unlike other chronic pain patients Garrett has met online, like Fosmoen, he considers himself one of the lucky ones since he's still able to get his opioids. He's been on the same dosage for four years.

“I’m on disability, making 20 percent of what I was making before,” Garrett said. “The constant pain and financial stress broke apart my family. I lost my marriage, my daughter, my income, my home and my dignity because no one out there gives a damn about what the legitimate chronic pain patients are going through with this ‘opioid war.’

“It is destroying us,” he continued. “But all you people out there aren’t going through that, and people benefiting and profiting from this hysteria are just all jumping on the bandwagon and playing it safe by going along with the mob.”
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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.