Labeled “Drug Seeker” and Almost Died

Mary’s Letter

Hi Dr. Hanscom,

I know that you had asked me to send you an email telling you how it made me feel when L&I “stereotyped/categorized/labeled” me.

The First Surgery

I know that you had asked for another story but I felt compelled to tell you about the first time I was stereotyped after my injury. It happened in an emergency room in Everett and was about one week after my first back fusion. I had only been home from the hospital for two days when I started getting back spasms. Initially the spasms were very bad but they had progressed to the point where I couldn’t even stand.  I ended up falling to the floor because my legs would not hold me up. It felt as though the muscles in my back where trying to bend me in half backwards. On the third day I couldn’t stand it anymore as the spasms were happening very frequently and I felt almost delirious.

Emergency Room

My oldest daughter called for an ambulance that transported me to the hospital emergency room. I spoke briefly with a nurse about what was going on and then to the doctor. I overheard them talking and saying that they felt there was NOTHING wrong with me but rather I was there looking for pain medication. Meanwhile I became upset and was telling my oldest daughter about what I had heard. She reached up and put her hand on my forehead and said, “Oh my God Mom you are burning up!” She proceeded to grab a thermometer and stick it in my mouth. After seconds she was freaking out and yelling for a nurse to get in there because I was burning up. The nurse didn’t even believe her so she herself took it again and my temperature was 103 degrees. About this time my younger of the adult daughters arrived.  My two daughters talked about the situation. The younger one grabbed my purse, which had ALL my medications in it, dumped it on the bed, and told the nurse to look at it! She told her that she too had witnessed me falling and that I had NO NEED for any more pain medication. I had more than enough and that they had better do something!

Sent Home with a 103 degree fever

After that they did some blood work, an X-ray, and wrote me a prescription for muscle relaxers. I was basically patted on the head, told me they found nothing, and sent me home. That was on a Wednesday. On Friday morning my phone rang and it was the hospital telling me that I needed to come in and be checked. I had a very serious infection, which was in my spine and my blood and I needed IV antibiotics!


I won’t take up more of your time telling you the rest of the nightmare but I felt like you should know this, BECAUSE they decided what kind of a person I was BEFORE gathering all the facts. It almost cost me my life. If my two adult daughters had not been there to advocate for me I would be dead. I honestly believe they would have not done or checked anything. They probably would have just sent me home saying it was nothing!

I will guess that by now you can understand why when we first met I was so “angry“. Part of my anger stemmed from my nightmare experience that almost cost me my life. There is also about a six-week window during that time that I don’t remember a lot without help from my kids!

I am SO GRATEFUL that I was sent to you and that you decided to help me! I know that I am probably not as far a long with my entire recovery process as you had hoped. But I know that I wouldn’t even be this far if it wasn’t for YOU!



My Perspective

Mary is a patient on whom I have performed two low back surgeries. The second was a fusion that went very well. However, the amount of family stress she has been under is beyond description. When I first met her over two years ago, she was one of the most angry patients I had ever met. I did not think she would return. She has made remarkable progress and is now just on minimal pain meds. I thoroughly enjoy my visits with her.

Her stresses continue, but she’s now trying to find a job, which in this economy is no small task. She has been consistently treated poorly by her claims examiner, and we have had to fight for every bit of her treatment. The subject of labeling came up, and I asked her to share part of her story.

The Cry of Chronic Pain: No one is Listening. WSMA Preceptor, August 2011.