Iowa Pain Patient Goes on Hunger Strike

By Pat Anson, Editor

An Iowa man who was released as a patient by his doctor last month has gone on a hunger strike, vowing to never eat again until “pain patients are treated better.”

“He fired me. Basically they don’t want chronic pain patients anymore,” says Ryan Lankford of Des Moines. “Between my experiences and reading stories online from so many people being treated the same way I am, I just thought I needed to make a statement and do something, if nothing else to raise awareness.

“I know it’s kind of pie in the sky. I just think at this point I don’t think I have anything to lose.”

The 40-year old Lankford suffers chronic pain in his right arm, stemming from an attack of flesh eating bacteria in 2009. Surgeons removed infected tissue and muscle to save Lankford’s arm, but the remaining nerves are encased in scar tissue and still cause neuropathic pain.

Lankford said his doctor at UnityPoint Health told him he was being discharged for making “inappropriate remarks.”  

“They wouldn’t say what the remarks were or to whom, but it was pretty clear they were tired of taking care of me, because at the same time I had told my doctor that the pain meds weren’t working as well anymore,” Lankford said.

“He said don’t try any of the other clinics because we have your records and you’re not going to be taken by any of our affiliates either.”

A call to UnityPoint Health for comment was not returned.

Since being discharged, Lankford says he has been taking “dangerous amounts of Tylenol” because he is no longer able to get tramadol, a weaker opioid pain medication that helped take the edge off his chronic pain.

“I’m unable to find anyone in Iowa to even prescribe me tramadol,” Lankford said. “If they hear you’re a pain patient and you’re trying to find a primary care provider they hang up the phone on you. They just plain don’t want you.”

Lankford says it’s been difficult to find doctors willing to treat his pain ever since a Des Moines pain management specialist was indicted in 2012 on seven counts of involuntary manslaughter for overprescribing opioids. Dr. Daniel Baldi was later found not guilty by a jury, but the case had a chilling effect on opioid prescribers in Iowa and around the country.

In recent months, the number of patients being dropped by doctors or weaned off opioids appears to have increased, possibly because of recent guidelines released by the CDC, which discourage opioid prescribing for chronic pain. Those guidelines are voluntary and only meant for primary care physicians, but many doctors appear to be adopting them, even pain management specialists.

Two pain clinics in Tennessee recently said they would stop prescribing opioids to chronic pain patients because of "changing regulations."

"I was told yesterday my pain doctor would no longer give me my short acting opioids," a Michigan pain patient told us. "He is also unsure if I'll be able to continue my long acting opioid one, which I've been on for around six years. This after telling me I have been a model patient. He used the recent death of Prince as a reason."

Hunger Strike Began Thursday

Lankford has not had any food since Thursday afternoon and is only taking water. He’s created a Facebook page called “Ryan’s Hunger Strike for Chronic Pain” where people can track his progress.

“I'm fully aware of what I'm doing, and what the consequences could be. It's time for action, since the powers that be won't heed our words. Once again, NOT a SUICIDE THREAT. This is legitimate political protest, and anyone who tries to forcibly stop me will be subject to legal action,” Lankford posted on Facebook.

Lankford hopes his hunger strike will draw attention not only to his own plight, but those of countless pain patients around the country who are in similar situations.

“We’ve been writing letters, talking online and making phone calls for ages and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere. Maybe something a little more drastic is in order,” he said.