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Pain Doctor, Pain Patient

How chronic pain changed one doctor's career -- and life.

New Direction continued...

He earned his Diplomate in Addiction Medicine from the American Board of Addiction Medicine and attended continuing medical education (CME) meetings to learn about both specialties. At his former employer, Fairfax Hospital, he bartered his services -- educating doctors there about gastrointestinal care in exchange for hands-on training in addiction medicine.

"And I set up a practice at the time that was very unusual. Patients who had pain only, patients who had addiction only, and patients who had both," he says.

Living in constant pain gave Heit a special insight on his patients. "They could never tell me something that I didn't experience myself. It gave me great empathy for our patient population and how terribly the medical profession was treating them."

As a pain and addiction specialist, Heit distinguished himself in other ways, too. He kept his practice small so he could get to know his patients and provide them one-on-one care. "I made it clear that I was going to be the captain of their ship as far as pain management. I would coordinate their care, whether it was with their family doctor, their internist, or their surgeon in order to give them the best pain management possible." He referred patients when necessary to physical therapists, counselors, or other specialists.

Heit never dismissed his patients for admitting they had a history of addiction, as many of their previous doctors had done. If addiction became a problem during treatment, he offered counseling and guidance, but made it clear that he wouldn't enable painkiller abuse.

Finding Pain Relief

Heit, now 67, finally found his own pain relief in a deep brain stimulation technique administered at the University of Virginia. "I don't use a wheelchair, brace, or cane anymore. I had a response to the Deep Brain Stimulator that eliminated close to 90% of my pain and the majority of my spasms. I was able to resume a fairly normal life," he says. Deep brain stimulation is a technique that uses implanted electrodes in certain areas of the brain, which send out currents that essentially block the signals that cause pain.

After the death of his wife in 2010, Heit stopped practicing medicine, but he remains a staunch advocate of pain management care -- a practice he says is sorely lacking. "Pain is undertreated in this country," he says. "The pain clinics are more interested in procedures than in taking time to discuss things in detail with patients."

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