I am going to open up about something very few know about. Only my parents, wife and a small handful of close friends have seen the real “Joe Burke.”
There is a generation of hemophiliacs alive today who are modern day anomalies of science, and the fact some of us are still alive and well remains nothing short of a miracle. This era of hemophilia born individuals has not only suffered through the era of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s and 90’s, but are now facing challenges even more serious with age.
Being a co-infected hemophiliac myself, which means having both HIV and Hepatitis C from contaminated blood products of the early 80’s, I am now facing a giant even more towering than HIV, AIDS or HCV: chronic pain.
Long before today’s standard of prophylactic treatment to prevent joint bleeds in hemophiliacs, patients were given factor VIII infusions on an “as needed” basis. Which means, when a joint bleed occurs, we didn’t have preventative measures to stop the episodes. Until my move to Florida in 2009, I was never placed on prophylactic therapy to treat hemophilia due to its cost; often times a bill of $25,000 a month for factor VIII injections and supplies.
Often times the bleeds would stop after a couple doses of factor VIII, but more often than not, many would require more than just 2 dosages to control the bleed. Not only did this style of “as needed” treatment result in severe joint damage, but permanent joint immobility and function.
The pictures to the right show my own body and the damage done to it over the past 30 years.
Pictured is my right knee, which is severely and permanently enlarged, my right elbow, right ankle and what a small bruise to a normal person would look like on a hemophiliac.
Not only over time do the joints lose mobility, but managing the pain of something as simple as standing in a shower can be extremely difficult.
Where am I going with this? I was reading a column in National Pain Report recently about a young lady who suffered from muscular dystrophy, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, mixed connective tissue disease and other auto immune related disorders.
Her story of being humiliated by her pharmacist in her hometown echoed many horrors I’ve experienced personally in requesting proper medications to treat hemophilia related episodes and pain.
Every time I visit my doctor that treats my hemophilia, it gets to the point in the visit where I must bring up the refill of my pain medication. I can’t help but feel somewhat humiliated. Not by the fact I’m asking for pain medication, but that in my asking, I’m being compared to those who abuse the system fraudulently.
I’ve been okay with my Hemophilia Treatment Center in asking for pain medication and receiving it — although the stigma is still there. But when I ask my pharmacist to fill the prescription, I’m often greeted with a cold stare and told, “We are all out, you’ll have to come back later.”
The cold stare translates into anger in me. And the anger manifests into resentment towards those who abuse the pharmaceutical system to get “a fix.” As a Christian man, I must love everyone, but the drug seekers are making it extremely difficult for those who truly need the medications, thus testing my patience on a daily basis. The Apostle Paul wrote about thorns in the side, and this is a big thorn for me.
Let me be real for a second. There are moments, as a man with severe hemophilia, that something as simple as showering can be excruciating. It’s hard for me to stand in front of a toilet to go #1. I can’t physically reach my back when I shower and often ask my wife to assist. Getting out of bed is a 20-30 minute daily routine for me of just standing at my dresser while holding on so my ankles, knees and hips get used to my weight. And I don’t weigh much at all, just 170 lbs.
I hate the feeling I get as the prescription leaves my hands into the pharmacist’s, and that moment when he reads the script and then the glance upward at me. It’s always degrading to some extent. Automatically, I’m considered “One of Those” types. It’s humiliating that I have to feel this way when all I want is a way to at least relieve some of the pain caused by a hemophilia related injury and permanent joint damage.
When an occurring bleed is happening, not only do we have to rest the joint and pack it with ice, but often times I’m awake all hours of the night without sleep due to sheer pain. Things like muscle creams, joint gels, icy hot etc. don’t even phase a hemophiliac. We bleed internally in the joint.
To all my blood brothers and sisters out there who are the older generation of hemophiliacs with pain and permanent joint damage, we must continue to fight and hold our heads high. We have a medical condition that causes lifetime pain and stress, and we must never feel humiliated or dismayed when asking for help to manage our pain.
Usually it only takes a moment for a pharmacist to see the damage to our bodies and the look on a worried patient’s face. Then they realize that we’re not junkies, we’re not scammers, and we’re not a threat. We are just a hemophiliac who needs help.
They have been conditioned by the DEA to think “druggie.” They are scared. They can lose their job, their career, their assets and their freedom if they make one small mistake. The paperwork, the time and the risk are just not worth it.
The misguided, insensitive and inhumane policies of our government, and the DEA in particular, have led us to create a Facebook page called Patients United for DEA Reform. It’s for people like hemophiliacs who need a voice and the support of family, friends and community. People living with pain and chronic illness.
Joseph Burke lives in Orlando, Florida. Joseph is the founder and editor of I Strive 2 Thrive, where this column was originally published. The mission of I Strive 2 Thrive is to raise awareness for those affected by Hemophilia, HIV and Hepatitis C.
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The information in this column is not intended to be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Only your doctor can do that! It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s personal experiences and opinions alone. It does not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of National Pain Report or Microcast Media.