Local veteran in chronic pain relies on opioids to get through the day

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KILLEEN, Texas (KWTX) President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to combat the opioid crisis put the issues of opioid addiction and overdose in the spotlight, but one local veteran is concerned efforts to curb the use of the drugs could make it harder to get the treatment he needs to get through each day.

Vonnea Mike Whalen. (Photo by Kathleen Serie)

Vonnea Mike Whalen is an Army veteran, and lives in a constant state of chronic pain.

His list of injuries is long, and his pain is severe.

"I have internal damage, my neck is degenerating, my lower back, I've got metal rods in me, screws, I've got a nerve simulator in my lower back,” Whalen said.

His injuries are a product of several dangerous missions overseas during his 22 years as a combat engineer.

"Before I saw Dr. (Scott) Irvine, you just got to the point where you just didn't care,” Whalen said.

“I couldn't move, couldn't do anything."

Now, Whalen relies on opioid pain treatment to make it through each day.
"Pain doesn't go away, but it breaks it up there so I'm able to get out of my house, play with my 3-year-old grandson,” Whalen said.

As Whalen goes into the Integrated Pain Associates center in Killeen for a routine procedure to control his chronic neck pain, he says he’s afraid that the president’s fight against opioids could make it harder for him to get the treatment.

"I know people are dying because they're overdosing, but without it, there's a whole bunch of us out there, our lives would be over with,” he said.

These are the people Dr. Scott Irvine treats at Integrated Pain Associates.

"There's patients that, they'll never be off opioids,” Irvine said. “Three back surgeries, four back surgeries, a back and a neck surgery."

DIrvine says that for many years, these addictive drugs weren’t regulated as they are today.

"It used to be, just, if you had a pain complaint, you'd get a onesie two-sie, and you could kind of take it as you need it, and I think that's how the genie got out of the bottle,” Irvine said.

Now, an epidemic of people misusing these drugs has led to a stigma around legitimate, regulated pain treatment.

"We wind up having patients going to get a legitimate medicine, written by a state-registered pain clinic, by board-certified physicians, that we feel needs to be written for them,” Irvine said.

“They go get that, and they wind up feeling as though they are second-class citizens, or in some way shape or form that they're dirty."

Just like his patients, Irvine said he is afraid that future regulations by the Trump administration could make it harder for him to treat chronic pain.

"And it must be difficult, and they must need it, and I'm a complete advocate for making sure that those medications are difficult to get, comma, but it needs to be gotten to, or give to, to the appropriate populations, because it's not zero, that's not the truth,” Irvine said.