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Tami conquers her opioid addiction

Tami Johannsen, 58, of Lincoln, looks rested and younger than her age — and decidedly different than she did just months ago. “When I first met Tami,” says pain management specialist Kelly Zach, MD, of Innovative Pain and Spine Specialists, “she was anxious, lethargic and in constant pain.” She also was addicted to fentanyl, an opioid pain medicine she had taken for years to try to keep her chronic pain under control.

Now that her pain and addiction have been treated, she looks like a different person,” says Dr. Zach.

Tami laughs. “He’s right!” she says. “I moved around like I was half asleep and literally felt like a zombie. And though I was taking lots of fentanyl, I was still in quite a lot of pain. My body hurt all over, and nobody could touch me — I couldn’t even hug my kids because it was just too painful. I was so miserable every day for years that eventually I just wanted to die. That’s what addiction became for me.”

Where trouble begins

How does opioid addiction develop?

“Most cases occur when opioid pain medication is prescribed for a short-term need, but is continued too long,” Dr. Zach explains. “Opioids often are prescribed to manage pain for a week or so after surgery or an injury, and patients experiencing significant pain after that time should be seen again by their doctor. Patients receiving opioid pain medication for longer than necessary risk overusing it and becoming physically addicted.

“Opioid medications can produce both pain relief and positive feelings of well-being and pleasure. With ongoing use of these drugs, the body adjusts so that higher and higher doses are needed to give the same level of these effects — this is called tolerance. The body’s adaptation can continue to a point where the patient will experience withdrawal symptoms if the opioid is stopped. The patient continues to need higher doses to address their pain and may ultimately develop opioid use disorder, which is also known as addiction.”

Opioids, including fentanyl, were part of Tami’s treatment during the previous decade because of serious, long-term pain in her back and legs. She had been treated for years by her primary physician, who referred her to Dr. Zach for re-evaluation because of her continuing pain and her concerns about

“When I went to see Dr. Zach, I was desperate to continue fentanyl because I thought it was the only thing that would manage my pain,” she says.

“But Dr. Zach gave me some very good news. He said, ‘Continuing fentanyl would be one option, but there are alternatives. We can wean you from fentanyl and still control your pain.’ The moment he said that was the first time in a long time I felt a sense of hope. I was at that point ready to quit fentanyl because I was so tired of feeling horrible and not living my life.”

Tami began a new pain control plan that included injections into her back to relieve pain in her legs. She was also started on medication-assisted therapy (referred to as “MAT”) for addiction management to reduce her desire for opioids. Several medication options are available.

“In Tami’s case we chose buprenorphine/naloxone, which replaces the effects of fentanyl in a way that relieves pain and prevents craving and withdrawal symptoms, but has fewer side effects,” Dr. Zach explains.

“Within an hour of starting this medication, my pain began to slowly decrease,” Tami says. “My legs still hurt, but things were improving.”

In addition to effective pain control and medication-assisted therapy, ongoing emotional support is a very important part of successful recovery from addiction. Tami received this emotional support from her family, and from Stacy Waldron, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Bryan Counseling Center.

Hope restored, support assured

“I was in such despair about my struggle with addiction that I was suicidal. Dr. Waldron has been instrumental in helping me maintain a sense of hope throughout my treatment,” says Tami.

“I also got important support as an inpatient at the Bryan Independence Center, where I went to be under the care of doctors and nurses while I was going through withdrawal from the fentanyl. I could have done this at home, but I wanted to go to the Independence Center because it helped to know the medical team was there if I needed them.”

Two months after starting addiction treatment and her new pain management plan, Tami is resilient, funny, energetic and joyful. Her daughter Danielle says, “Mom looked lifeless when she was overusing the fentanyl. Now I see so many changes — color has come back into her skin, and the light is back in her eyes.”

Nothing to fear

Tami adds, “It was actually like life turned on again for me after I got off fentanyl. I had seen the world in grey and black all the time, like I was looking through gauze, and now I’m literally seeing the world in color again. And before, I barely ate because I couldn’t taste my food, but now food tastes glorious. I also have energy to do things, like quilting, painting and my longtime love of refinishing furniture.”

Dr. Zach says, “Patients overusing opioids can experience many types of changes in their physical and mental states. They may feel like their senses are altered, or that their emotional responses are dulled. This can definitely have a negative impact on their daily lives.”

He points out, “Seeing the changes in peoples’ lives when they stop abusing opioids is tremendous, and there is no age limit to successful medical treatment for addiction.”

Tami says, “I want people to know that anyone can get off opioids if they get the right medical treatment, and they don’t need to be afraid of pain during the opioid withdrawal process. When you work with experienced doctors, they will control your pain and keep you safe.

“I feel so much healthier since getting off fentanyl. I literally feel 25 years younger. Being free of addiction is the best gift you can give yourself, and my kids are so proud of me.”

Get Care for Opioid Addiction

For more information about available treatment programs, see your doctor, or contact the Bryan Independence Center at 402-481-5268 or the staff at the Bryan Counseling Center at 402-481-5991.


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