A lot can happen in a year, but Kathy Lamb knows what it feels like to be stuck in place.
The Lebanon resident spent most of 2019 battling an opioid addiction after turning to pain clinics to manage scoliosis and slipped discs.
Lamb made the decision to quit fentanyl near the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and credits a spinal cord stimulation treatment from Vanderbilt for helping her live drug-free since.
“Chronic pain is just like facing a black wall,” she said. “Everyone around you lives except you. There’s no hope, you see no hope and there’s no life ahead of you. You see your friends and family go on without you.”
She had hoped for clinics to help her scale that obstacle, but she said the opioids she was prescribed only created new problems. Even back surgery was only a temporary relief, and at times the pain kept her from walking at all.
“It’s a nightmare,” she said of the addiction. “You take them to get up, you take them to sleep, and your day is spent sleeping, usually. When I would have visitors I couldn’t talk to them, I couldn’t relate to them. It’s debilitating because you can’t drive, you can’t get out and go anywhere. There were things I did that I don’t even remember. It affected my children, it affected my whole life.”
After months of living through that cycle and losing relationships with friends and family, Lamb knew it was time to make a change. That meant she had to deal with the challenge of finding a solution while navigating through COVID-19.
“From our perspective, COVID-19 has had an impact on opioid use and overdose, in many cases because it’s caused more isolation,” DrugFree WilCo secretary and treasurer Michael Ayalon said. “It’s also caused changes in access to recovery services, health care and pain clinic oversight.”
Fortunately, Lamb was referred to Vanderbilt for spinal cord stimulation treatment — a device surgically placed under the skin that interrupts pain signals before they reach the brain. She uses a handheld controller with multiple settings to adjust the device to her needs.
“Occasionally when you do have backaches, you have control of those,” she said. “They no longer control your life, you get to control your pain levels. There’s levels on it that you can have your legs and your back, and all I have to do is turn it on and adjust it to me and my pain is gone. What it does is it blocks the messages to your brain that there’s pain. It’s wonderful, and I can’t begin to tell you how much it means to me to have this.”
SCS is often prescribed to patients like Lamb who continue experiencing pain after multiple back surgeries, or have become dependent on opioids. She said the change was immediate after she had it installed in June.
“I don’t know about other people’s experience, but this is my experience with it, and it gave me back my life,” she said. “I’m alive. I go places, I have friends, I can walk around my home and enjoy my home, my children and my grandchildren. I get to see them again, and they don’t see somebody that sits around and sleeps all the time. That’s embarrassing because you don’t know what your grandchildren are going to think of you. But now I can do pretty much anything I want to do.”
According to Research and Planning Consultants, a health care consulting partnership, SCS is effective for an estimated 75% of patients. The procedure is reversible and generally considered safe, and doctors use a five to seven day trial to determine SCS eligibility at roughly $7,500.
The average implementation costs for the full treatment are $32,882 for Medicare patients and $57,896 for Blue Cross Blue Shield patients, according to a study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.
Although Lamb used that treatment to overcome her struggles, Ayalon said Wilson County and the surrounding areas are seeing more and more people fighting similar battles.
“If we look at Nashville, they have some really good data,” he said. “As of Aug. 31, 411 people died of an overdose in 2020 in Nashville, and in the 12 weeks before that 11 people overdosed every week. Fentanyl had been found in 80% of those overdose deaths.”
Ayalon added that rural areas like Wilson County face potentially greater barriers as COVID-19 continues limiting resources. Part of DrugFree WilCo’s mission involves helping people in need find the resources that work best for them.
“Our diversion center is going to be a piece of that,” he said, noting that the organization plans to open one in the next few months. “As isolation continues and more people turn to opioids we’re expecting to see more first-time drug offenders with misdemeanors, and we can work with those people through that program. Ultimately, if they comply with every step they can have their record expunged.”
A diversion center could also provide a support system for people dealing with opioid dependency. Lamb was not a drug offender, but she said one of the hardest parts of her experience was facing judgment from doctors when she went to the emergency room.
“When I was on the opioids and I would go to an emergency room, they automatically thought I was there to get drugs,” she said. “And they would say terrible things to me, like ‘you’re not going to use this place to get drugs.’ Of course, all I did was cry. There had to be a change, I couldn’t live the way I was.”
DrugFree WilCo is also planning a large-scale business outreach program to help connect people with individual solutions.
“We’ve identified the top 100 businesses in Wilson County, and we’re going to be educating the employees on resources available,” Ayalon said. “I think that’s going to make a big difference as well, and being able to have those discussions online is going to help with people going through isolation.”
Lamb found her solution, and now she wants to use her experience to do the same for others in the community.
“I don’t want anyone to have to suffer the pain I did or be labeled something that they’re not,” she said. “I wasn’t an addict, I was in pain and I needed help. And nobody was willing to help me until I went to this clinic and they said instead of giving you these, we want you to try this. And it was the answer for me.”
For more information on SCS, visit https://www.pain.com/en/chronic-pain-solutions/spinal-cord-stimulation.html.