By Pat Anson, Editor
All Ryan Lankford wanted was a new doctor and a cheeseburger.
Now that he has the former, he can chow down on the latter.
The 40-year old Iowa man ended his week-long hunger strike Thursday after finally finding a doctor willing to treat his chronic pain.
“I have some good news. I have a primary care physician!” Lankford said in a message to supporters.
Lankford, who was “fired” by his doctor at UnityPoint Health last month for reasons that were not made clear, suffers from chronic pain in his right arm, stemming from an attack of flesh eating bacteria in 2009. Surgeons were able to save the arm after removing infected tissue, but neuropathic pain in the scar tissue never went away.
After losing his doctor, Lankford was forced to take “dangerous amounts of Tylenol” instead of tramadol, a weaker acting prescription opioid that helped take the edge off his pain.
He decided to go on a hunger strike last week, as a form of protest not only against his own situation, but because thousands of chronic pain patients face similar problems finding doctors.
“I’ve been getting messages from just all corners of the United States. It’s been unreal. I didn’t know that this many people would be with me on this,” Lankford said.
“A lot of people were thanking me that somebody has the guts to do something like this. And there were a lot of them, just a heartbreaking amount of people, that have also been thrown out of pain management practices and dismissed from primary care practices. And denied medications by pharmacies.”
Lankford only drank water during the hunger strike and lost 15 pounds. Going without food sapped his energy and he was sleeping 12 hours a day, but he wasn’t as hungry as he expected.
“After about four or five days, you don’t really notice that anymore. The fatigue gets to be the biggest trick,” Lankford told Pain News Network.
Despite his exhaustion, Lankford kept looking for a new doctor.
“I was making some calls around and I finally found a primary care physician that was willing to at least talk to me. Instead of the usual, ‘We don’t take chronic pain patients,’ and then click,” said Lankford
All it took was one visit with the new doctor, who didn’t even know Lankford was on a hunger strike.
“He asked me what I was on, and when I told him tramadol and gabapentin, his response was ‘That's it?! For THAT?!’ He started my meds back up straight away,” said Lankford.
While the notion of being unable to find a doctor might seem strange to healthy people, it’s become a common occurrence for pain sufferers. Many doctors are afraid to prescribe opioid painkillers, fearing oversight by the DEA or even prosecution.
Finding a pain management specialist has been particularly difficult in Iowa, according to Lankford, ever since a Des Moines physician was indicted for involuntary manslaughter for overprescribing opioids in 2012. Dr. Daniel Baldi was later found not guilty by a jury, but the case had a chilling effect on opioid prescribers.
Local media seemed uninterested in Lankford’s hunger strike. Only WHO-TV, the NBC affiliate in Des Moines, ran a story, which you can watch by clicking here.
“WHO was the only one, and they reached out pretty fast,” said Lankford, who is grateful for the attention his hunger strike did get, especially from pain patients.
“Although today marks the end of my hunger strike, don't think for a second that I'll EVER stop speaking up for chronic pain patients and the injustices we face, and don't ever think I would ever forget about all of the great people I have met in the last week or so,” Lankford said in a note on his Facebook page, called “Ryan’s Hunger Strike for Chronic Pain.”
“You guys are all rock stars and stronger than anyone can ever know. I'm thinking I will leave this page up as a place to discuss pain issues with like-minded people because frankly, many people on my personal FB just don't ‘get it,’ nor would I expect them to.”