Iowa Pain Patient Ends Hunger Strike

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.

RYAN LANKFORD

RYAN LANKFORD

“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.”

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.