Taking on the VA – and Prevailing

Taking on the VA – and Prevailing

Editor’s Note: The National Pain Report received an email from a California woman who was having trouble with the Veteran’s Administration health care system and she wanted to know if we could help. We didn’t need to. She pretty much did it herself. Here’s her story:

Judie Bruno and dog Fred

Judie Bruno and friend Fred

“At times I just feel as if I’m going to lie down and die!”

Well she hasn’t—not nearly.

What 68 year old Judie Bruno of Palm Desert, California did instead was take on the VA and how her chronic pain was being treated (or not treated)—and she prevailed.

Bruno served her country with distinction. She spent five and a half years in the service, first in the Woman’s Army Corp and then the US Army. This was in the late 1960s when women by and large didn’t serve.

She broke both of her legs in a skydiving accident and was discharged from the Army in 1974 a year after breaking her legs. In the years since, she has had over 20 surgeries, lost her right leg below the knee to amputation and uses a power wheelchair to, as she said, “Get around”.

Her left leg, which she uses to transfer in and out of the wheelchair, is in constant pain. Add to that that she suffers from a rare “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” (IBS-C). She’s nauseated every morning and becomes so sick that often she can’t even function without help of medications.

And it’s those medications, and her use of medical marijuana (legal in her home state of California) that is at the crux of this story.

She moved from Orange County in southern California to Palm Desert. As a result, she changed VAs from Long Beach to Loma Linda.

We should tell you here that Judie may be disabled but that didn’t mean she was inactive.

“I am not a veteran who sits in front of the TV all day getting stoned,” she told the National Pain Report. “I hate that feeling and instead donate my time volunteering to help others with disabilities under the ADA as an ADA Coordinator and Disability Rights Advocate and am very involved in Emergency Management for those who have Disability, Access and Functional Needs (DAFN)”.

A busy woman, one who knew how to work the system.  It would serve her well.

In the 15 years before she moved to Palm Desert, her doctors at the VA  in Long Beach had her on a regimen that allowed her to address her pain and live her life. Her morphine intake was down to one, 15 mg instant release, two-to-three times a day and only when she needed to do so.

Years ago she had reduced her pain med intake voluntarily—so she only took her meds on as needed basis, so keeping her pain meds at a minimum is always her goal.

For her IBS cramping, “sometimes it doesn’t let me even function,”, she was taking two Percacet four times a day, but a few years ago they decided to cut that amount in  half.

“It barely puts a band aid on my pain levels.”

She started using marijuana.

“Instead of taking more morphine, I do smoke marijuana, legal in California but because of the federal law against it, these pharmacists are now taking it out and punishing the veterans in their care for doing so.”

The problems started when she transferred to Loma Linda VA Medical Center.

After 3 of her doctors told her they would prescribe Oxycodone for this discomfort but the VA refused to issue this medication, she “Officially Requested” to have this prescribed for her and that is what started this problem. When the Pharmacist found out that she used Medical Marijuana, he made the decision to just stop giving her the Morphine she had been on for years with no warning, nothing to replace it for the pain and nothing to help with the withdrawals she would have if she just stopped taking this medication.

It’s important to note that Judie believes because of her use of marijuana she has reduced the amount of narcotic pain medication that she uses. So as a result her prescriptions lasted a bit longer.

That’s a good thing because when she went to get them refilled, the pharmacists (not the doctors) at the VA in Loma Linda told her they were stopping her prescription as of the 16th of October.

By now, you’ve probably figured out that Judie Bruno doesn’t take things lying down, unless she’s really not feeling well.

So, like a true Army vet, she attacked on two fronts.

She asked for a meeting at the Pain Board on October 6 and called her Congressman Raul Ruiz (who interestingly enough is a medical doctor) for help.

Ruiz’ staff was sympathetic but not really very helpful, although Judie hopes that he will take the issue of denying veterans legitimate medical treatment by the VA and do more than look into it,  but “try to create some real change.”

The Pain Board hearing went much better. She’s getting her morphine medication back and also now, will be receiving OxyContin for help with her IBS.

“Having proof that I never abused the medication because I had enough to last over a month without a prescription went a long ways to show them I am not a drug addict and don’t abuse any medication that’s prescribed for me.”

She told Congressman Ruiz’ staff the following in a letter.

“Something must be done not only for our Veterans for all those citizens who truly suffer from chronic pain and should never go a day doing so because of these ridiculous law the DEA has put into place.”

She continued:

“(No sense) taking this out on the veterans who have served their country nor on every citizen who lives in states where they have voted to legalize medical marijuana.”

Judie Bruno.

Remember the name.

I’m guessing it’s not the last we’ve heard of her.

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Authored by: Ed Coghlan

There are 3 comments for this article
  1. Mary Ellen at 10:29 pm

    Give me an hour. All the bean counters making these horrible decisions need to take my pain for one hour. Just one hour. Then you’d understand how changing guidelines is punishment for the crime of being disabled. If you did. . . You wouldn’t be so cruel.

  2. LouisVA at 1:16 pm

    Judie Bruno said “Something must be done not only for our Veterans for all those citizens who truly suffer from chronic pain and should never go a day doing so because of these ridiculous law the DEA has put into place.”

    I agree 100% with the above. Another concern of mine is all the talk of capping opioid doses. I’ve been on an ultra-high opioid dose due to a genetic defect (CYP2D6) that makes me a poor metabolizer. The caps being proposed are much lower than my dose that has kept my stable, comfortable, and increased my quality of life for over five years. The proposed caps would be a small fraction of my daily dose and these caps would put me back into suicidal pain levels. Pain care should be between the patient and the doctor. Neither the DEA nor CDC has a license to practice medicine and should simply stay out of the way.

  3. Janet Komanchuk at 10:15 am

    Good for you Judie. I have been fortunate to find the help I so desperately needed when suffering with painful, chronic, debilitating fibromyalgia and I realize that there is such a stigma and lack of understanding associated with chronic pain and those who suffer with it. By championing you cause I hope there will be more understanding for both the veterans and all others who suffer from chronic pain.