Tami Johannsen

Dr. Kelly Zach (right) helped patient Tami Johannsen overcome an addiction to fentanyl, and she’s now being treated with Suboxone, which manages her pain and helps defend against a relapse.

Tami Johannsen started taking fentanyl because she couldn't stomach the chronic pain she'd dealt with or the other opioids she was prescribed. 

Those pills, directed at treating her back pain and scattered pain from her fibromyalgia, upset her stomach. 

So 10 years ago, she started taking fentanyl, a synthetic opioid delivered through the skin via a patch. 

Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine, and that potency contributed to the deaths of over 28,000 Americans in 2017, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control. 

Johannsen started on a low dose, but the drug's effects wore off. 

Her doctor kept bumping up the dosage, and fentanyl became what she lived for, she said in an interview Thursday.

"I laid on the couch for a couple of years, and life was going by," the 58-year-old said. 

Ultimately, addiction separated Johannsen from her three children and kept her from seeing her five grandchildren, she said. 

When she moved from St. Edward to Lincoln, she looked for a new doctor to renew her prescription. 

She met with multiple doctors before seeing Kelly Zach, an anesthesiologist with Innovative Pain & Spine Specialists and medical director at Bryan Pain Management. 

Zach saw that the potency of her fentanyl prescription put her at risk of an overdose, he said.

Her case wasn't unlike others he's seen in recent years, patients who were prescribed opioids for chronic pain for the right reasons but whose long-term, escalating use of the medications put them at risk of addiction or death.

"These medications really change your brain chemistry to say this is the only thing available," Zach said Thursday in a news conference at Bryan East Campus.

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Once he evaluated Johannsen's case, it became clear that fentanyl's pain-fighting abilities were weakened due to the prolonged use. 

So he presented her with another option, using Suboxone to treat her pain while also protecting her from relapse.

Change intimidated her, she said. 

But about seven months ago, she stopped taking fentanyl and began her new treatment.

Within 10 minutes, she felt a difference. 

The sky was bluer, and the foggy mind she had on fentanyl cleared up, she said.

Her future won't be free of pain, and she understands that. 

She's set to have back surgery to alleviate some of that pain, she said. 

After that, she wants to start working again and resuming a career in sales that her opioid addiction put on pause.

Treatment at Bryan's Independence Center, which helps youth and adults with drug and alcohol addictions, aided the transition in her pain treatment, she said.

She leaves the house now, she's more sociable and she's an involved grandmother again, she said.

Putting aside her fear of change freed her, and she wants others addicted to opioids to know there's a way out.

"When you're in pain, that's all you can think about," Johannsen said. "But it's really not that difficult to make that change." 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.


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