LOS ANGELES (CBLSA.com) — Arlene Grau suffers from chronic pain so severe that she has trouble hugging her kids without medication.
"I can't give them the hugs they deserve," the 29-year-old mother of two said. "I can't be the mother that I want to be."
Her condition came about rapidly. One morning when she was 23, she woke up in debilitating pain and was unable to get out of bed. Many of her limbs were severely swollen.
She went to the doctor and came back with a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and an inflammatory disease of the blood vessels called vasculitis.
Her doctor, rheumatologist Daniel Arkfeld of USC's Keck Medical Center, prescribed her prednisone and immunosuppresants to fight inflammation.
But at the dosages needed to keep the pain at bay, Grau suffered horrible side effects.
"It started tearing up my stomach," she said. "I was going to the hospital regularly because I was vomiting blood."
When the dosages were lowered, her pain came roaring back.
So Arkfeld decided to couple her immunosuppresants with prescription opioid painkillers.
"People like Arlene suffer tremendously and it's not fair," Arkfeld said.
Grau says the painkillers, which have included Vicodin and Oxycontin, have helped her regain a modicum of normalcy.
"(My kids) can put their arms around me and I can take it," she said. "Whereas if they were to hug me when I don't have my medication I would have to push them away."
But getting those opioid prescriptions has become increasingly difficult as production is being cut.
The Drug Enforcement Agency last month ordered a 25 percent cut in opioid production next year. The agency cited the prevalence of opioid abuse and overdoses, as well as declining prescriptions from doctors.
Although her need for the medication is legitimate, Grau also often feels sized up by pharmacists who are skeptical of drug abusers.
"They're like looking at you with those eyes ... the judgmental eyes," she said. "Those, 'We don't believe you' eyes.' "
What's more, she's also found she can't fill prescriptions at local pharmacies.
"CVS has told me that they wont have the medication for maybe two or more months," she said. "Walgreens has said six months or more. I was going everywhere and nobody had it."
Mike Pavlovich, a pharmacist at Westcliff Compounding Pharmacy in Newport Beach, said pharmacists are also struggling to fill legitimate prescriptions as production cuts limit their supply.
"We can't take everybody who walks in the door with a prescription for pain medication," he said. "We had a very robust practice dealing with patients with chronic pain. We lost a great deal of them because we could no longer acquire certain medications in sufficient amounts to continue their care."
Without adequate pain relief, Grau has suffered through some dark times.
"Sometimes you just want it to stop," she said. "Sometimes the pain is so bad that you feel like you make everyone around you miserable."
She's currently on a regimen that includes physical therapy and heat therapy to manage her pain. It often works, but she said she's going to continue fighting for access to whatever medication she needs to live a productive life.
"For someone to say, 'You can't have your medication,' is unfair and unjust," she said. "Not just to me but for my children."
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