News 2 Special Report - The War at Home - WCBD-TV: News, Weather, and Sports for Charleston, SC

News 2 Special Report - The War at Home

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CHARLESTON, SC - 42-year-old Michael Streeter is what you could call a real man's man.  "I used to throw myself out of airplanes, helicopters and in front of bullets," Streeter explained.

It was tiny pills that brought this former Army Ranger to his knees.  "I basically wanted to die. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted it all to be over," he said.

Michael's life started falling apart when he fell about 100 feet.  "I had a parachute accident where I broke my back. The pain and the agony were bad. When I got out, they had me on like 20 something pills," he said.

Compounding a pill problem, Streeter suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was using the pain medications to mask the symptoms of PTSD rather than treating his actual pain. On the verge of suicide, unable to hold a job and with his marriage against the ropes he knew something had to change.

"I was here one time and I saw another veteran in a wheelchair with a bag full of medicine. He looked almost dead in the wheel chair. I said, 'I don't want to be him at that age,'" he said.

"I don't want to be one of those statistics of the 23 veterans a day killing themselves," he added.  In 2004 Streeter decided to fight the addiction but was met with little help.

"I expressed to my doctor at the time that I did not like taking all the meds that I was on and she said you must be lying and you're not in the pain you're in if you don't want to take your meds," he said.  

Streeter explained that it was a different culture at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston back then.

"You would go to your doctor, they would type on their computer for like 15 minutes. They would give you your medication and send you on your way," he said.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, the Center for Investigative Reporting compiled pain killer prescription rates for the nation's VA hospitals from 2001 through 2012. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pain prescriptions sky rocketed nationwide.

Locally at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, Streeter wasn't alone. They saw a 144% increase in pain prescriptions during those years. Oxycodone was up 9%, Morphine up 150%, Hydrocodone up 870% and Methadone was up 1,309%.

"It's shocking but the problem is that you are looking at a time period from 2001 - 2012... The change is coming in 2009," Dr. Robert Friedman with the VA Medical Center Pain Clinic explained.

"The VA's policy toward taking care of pain has changed dramatically in the last 3 or 4 years," Friedman said.

Friedman joined the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in 2009, when the VA system changed their pain management policies across the nation.  He says that you must look at the stats in two groupings, 2001 until 2009 and 2009 through the present.

"I've probably written less than 6 prescriptions since I've been here," Friedman said.

The Charleston VA's pain killer prescription rate is 6% lower than the national average and they have the lowest rate in their region of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. The region includes eight hospitals and several community-based clinics.

"I had been pounding my drum for years that I hated all the medications," Streeter said.

Pills may have won the battle, but Streeter is well on his way to winning the war against addiction. He is now a part of the VA's new pain management clinic and treatments.

"It's changed my life. They got me off all my medications," he said.  The medications have been replaced with more meditation.  "I do acupuncture. I do yoga. I meditate twice a day in the morning and in the evening," Streeter said.

"We've added a psychiatrist, a psychologist here. We've added a nurse practitioner and pharmacist who work together as a part of a team," Friedman said.

The entire team of doctors meet together with Streeter and the other veterans in the clinic.

"We're never going to eliminate opioids completely because there is a place for them. We just have to find the right patient and the right dose," Friedman said.

For Streeter, the pain is still there, but VA reform has him off the pills and winning the war at home.
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