My Journey From Doctor to Chronic Pain Patient

By Lisa Kehrberg, MD, Guest Columnist

I'm a 41-year old family practice physician living in the Chicago area. I worked in private practice directly after residency and then worked for the Veterans Administration in an outpatient clinic the remainder of my short career.

Much of my work involved treating patients with chronic, non-cancer pain. Little did I know at the time, this was more of a training course for me to become the very patient I was treating. 

In 2011, my 39-year old big brother died suddenly and unexpectedly at home. He was a criminal defense attorney living in our home state of Oklahoma at the time. His death was shocking since I was unaware he had any serious medical conditions. Getting his medical records was even more shocking. His physical symptoms were attributed to psychological causes. 

His death was the worst life situation I had experienced. I'd never felt such emotional pain. I also began to have physical symptoms. I had bouts of severe abdominal pain, headaches, vomiting, dark urine, numbness in my hands, and fatigue. 

In 2013, when I was the same age my brother died, I had very severe abdominal pain with vomiting and foot drop. This time the pain was too intense to tolerate and I went to an emergency room. I was admitted and had a CT scan, endoscopy, and a colonoscopy. All of these tests were unremarkable, yet I was getting sicker each day.

Initially, when speaking to the hospital doctors involved with my care, I assumed the diagnosis would be found and I'd receive appropriate care. The first surprise was, after admission, they refused to treat my excruciating pain. I was doubled over, rocking, vomiting, and crying with the worst pain of my life. Worse than labor, appendicitis, or anything else I'd experienced. It was a hot, burning pressure that was like lava and hot razor blades filling up my abdomen. My stomach distended to appear 9 months pregnant.



Doctor after doctor walked in and witnessed this and continued to refuse ordering opioids. After all the tests were complete and normal, the doctors were very rude to me and implied this was all a psychological problem.

I was shocked and in disbelief. How could my colleagues not believe me? Did they think I was lying? And why would I lie? I had a busy life with two young children, a husband and worked full time as a physician. I had rarely gone to doctors in my life and only taken opioids after the few surgeries I had.

Clearly the doctors didn't listen or believe me, because on day 3 of the first hospital stay, I was discharged home, doubled over in the most excruciating pain ever. I was unable to tolerate even liquids and vomited continuously. At home I never even made it upstairs. I lay on my couch getting sicker and sicker. I was getting short of breath and having palpitations. My pulse was very rapid and blood pressure high.

I went to a different hospital emergency room within 24 hours of discharge from the first hospital. After about a week of tests, the doctors were able to diagnose me with a rare genetic metabolic disease called acute intermittent porphyria.

Before figuring out the cause of my pain, doctors at this second hospital not only listened to me, but believed me. My pain was very aggressively treated the entire time I was there. I was believed, as all patients should be. Time wasn't wasted on judging and all energy went towards helping me.

Eventually I received hemin, which is an infusion used to treat porphyria. I was diagnosed and received treatment just in time and fortunately I survived, unlike my brother. 

Learning to Live with Porphyria

Because the disease had became so severe before being diagnosed and treated, I have permanent nerve damage. I have severe abdominal pain from visceral neuropathy every day. I have also had back-to-back porphyria attacks since 2013. Porphyria attacks are known to be excruciating and a patient experiencing one will normally be hospitalized and get IV morphine.

What happens to patients like me who have back-to-back attacks without a break ever? Do I live in a hospital? I spent the first 3 months of this ordeal hospitalized the majority of the time. I began to wonder if I would spend the rest of my life as an inpatient. But I wanted to live and go back to my life somehow.

The only way to stay out of the hospital is palliative care; treating the symptoms at home. I've been unable to work and spend most of my time too sick to leave my house or do much. The disease is very unpredictable, so it's impossible to plan much. At least I can see my children every day. I survive by putting my energy into loving my children and taking things hour by hour. Just making it through one day is a challenge. 

One of the most common causes of death from porphyria is suicide. This isn't surprising. I always wonder how people who are sick like me keep surviving. To live in continuous excruciating pain every minute of every day with no end in sight is quite the challenge. Now imagine living this way with no pain medication. I will tell you that it's not possible. The pain from this disease if left untreated is not compatible with life.

At that first hospital, I tried to find a window I could open and jump from. I felt like I was on fire. I wasn't depressed. I was in pain. How would someone like me exist in life without pain medication? I couldn't. Impossible. It would be like performing abdominal surgeries on patients without anesthesia. It's so beyond my comprehension how the medical community can have such little empathy for those who are sick, in pain, and disabled. 

My palliative care doctor is wonderful. He has compassion and listens to me. He believes me and doesn't judge. He has saved my life and the reason I'm able to attempt living life and not continuously be readmitted to the hospital.  

Last summer I went to a new doctor who specializes in pain and is a physiatrist. I was hoping he may have some ideas. He listened to my story, then said he couldn't help me since I took opioids. He told me my pain must be "emotional.” He said patients without cancer should not be taking opioids chronically.

I asked him what someone like me can do. I explained it’s like having a blow torch in your colon all of the time and how do you exist that way? He shook his head and rolled his eyes. I left crying.

I still cry when I think of that interaction. How could a physician, a person supposedly trained to offer healing and compassion, treat any human being this way? If I was healthy and was working in the same hospital as this doctor, he would be inviting me to lunch. But because I met him while sick and disabled, I'm judged. No compassion, much less treatment. 

Now that I've entered the world of chronic pain, I've had the opportunity to talk to hundreds of patients suffering like me. The majority have uncontrolled pain. They are forced to jump through many hoops each month just to get the medication needed to offer a little relief. I've talked to many who plan suicide someday, because they are unable to get appropriate pain management. This isn't depression. It's pure physical torture. I can't imagine people needlessly dying because they are unable to get medication to ease their suffering. Medication that's available. These people have children, are someone's child, have siblings, friends, etc. 

Physicians see a patient for 10-15 minute appointments and don't understand that the person’s pain continues after that office visit. Physicians who think opioids shouldn't be prescribed for chronic non-cancer pain are wrong. Ask these same doctors how they plan to treat the pain and you learn there is no plan.

I suspect these doctors don't understand the concept of continuous pain. If a doctor refuses to treat a patient’s chronic pain and that patient commits suicide from pain, then somebody should be held accountable. This is criminal and completely preventable. 

I'm saddened to see what's happening with the CDC's opioid prescribing guidelines. I would really like the CDC to suggest how to treat my severe back-to-back porphyria attacks. Too many doctors are being investigated for opioid prescribing. This is meant to scare doctors not to prescribe. Doctors should be receiving training on how to prescribe opioids and treat chronic pain patients. Doctors who treat chronic pain patients are saving lives everyday. They should receive only praise.

Lisa Kehrberg, MD, is a family practice physician who specialized in pain management. You can read more about Lisa at the American Porphyria Foundation’s website.

Lisa is also featured in this report on Acute Intermittent Porphyria:

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.