The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, in collaboration with WCIV ABC News 4, will host a special symposium “Attacking Pain: Alternatives to Opioids” aboard the USS Yorktown on Thursday, July 18, from 7:00 – 8:00 p.m.
The event is free and open to the public and will include a panel discussion on the growing opioid crisis featuring VA pain management specialists and Veterans.
The panel includes:
- Dr. Robert Friedman, Charleston VAMC Pain Management Director
- Tony Abramczyk, PharmD, Charleston VAMC Pain Management Lead Pharmacist
- Dr. Elizabeth Call, Charleston VAMC Homeless Primary Care Team Physician & Pain Management Team Member
- Rae Carlers, U.S. Air Force Veteran
- Darryl Gadsden, U.S. Army Veteran
The addition of Veterans on the panel allows a personal view into the potential adverse effects of opioid dependency, as well as the positive and uplifting story of how VA has helped these Veterans take control of their care and find the fulfilling life they wanted.
Air Force Veteran Rae Carlers first had experience with opioid pain relievers after a back injury in 2015 left her struggling with persistent pain.
“The pain was unbelievable,” Carlers said. “Christmas day in 2015, I came home from a beautiful day on the beach and I crossed my leg and fell to the floor and had to crawl and get my cane.”
She said that for about two weeks she couldn’t do anything while she was on the medication for the pain because it just made her sleep all day.
“The medication that you’re taking is just a Band-Aid,” she warned. “Try and seek alternative treatments. It might just be what gets you out of the house and doing the things you’ve done before.”
With the help of Dr. Robert Friedman, Charleston VAMC pain management director, Carlers was able to find alternative treatments to help alleviate her pain and allow her to continue an active retirement lifestyle. She has since represented the Charleston VA at several national Veteran sporting events where she has won medals in pickleball, her favorite sport.
Dr. Tony Abramczyk, lead pharmacist and pain management specialist at Charleston VA, has been a leader in the Pain Management Clinic which has helped reduce the use of opioids in Veterans’ care over the last few years.
“We have made great strides here in Charleston in the last five years to reduce opioid prescribing,” Abramczyk said. “Our surgical prescribing rates are down 40% in the past year, in terms of opioid prescribing, our emergency medicine rates are down 50% in the last three years.”
Abramczyk said part of Charleston VA’s plan for treating chronic pain is addressing underlying mental health issues like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders.
“Pain is married to mental health and mental health is married to pain,” said Abramczyk. “We treat the mind, we treat the body. The patients that buy into that program often get the best results.”
Army Veteran Darryl Gadsden is one of those patients. He injured his back during combat training in 1983 and began his journey in pain management then.
“It was such a horrific experience to experience pain like that,” Gadsden said. “It felt like it started going up toward my chest and every time I breathed, I felt like my chest was caving in.”
Gadsden spent the next 30 years struggling to overcome addiction and substance abuse issues that caused him to lose his job as a fire fighter in St. Andrews, South Carolina. With help from Charleston VA, Gadsden has turned his life around.
Dr. Elizabeth Call has been part of his journey. The primary care physician and psychiatrist is the program manager of the Homeless Patient Aligned Care Team.
“I work very close with mental health on patients with chronic pain because I feel if you don’t address the mental health issues the pain is unlikely to get better,” said Call. “Research has shown that opiates long term aren’t always safe and effective. Over the years, we’ve been able to convince veterans there are other ways to manage their pain by providing the resources and education.”
For more information on the special live broadcast, visit the Charleston VAMC Facebook page.