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What 'Station 19' Got Wrong About Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

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“Station 19” is a television show spinoff from the critically acclaimed “Grey’s Anatomy” that follows the lives of firefighters from Station 19 in Seattle, Washington. I’ve been watching “Grey’s Anatomy” for the last six years and have enjoyed it immensely. I love the characters and their stories, but I also love how it addresses a variety of different medical conditions.

My dad was a firefighter for 30 years, so of course, I was going to watch the firefighter spinoff of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Especially because it was a Shonda show. I’ve been an avid watcher of Shonda Rimes shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “How to Get Away With Murder” from their inception. I enjoy all three immensely and was looking forward to watching “Station 19” for the crossovers with “Grey’s.”

I was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) at the age of 13. CRPS is a rare progressive disease of the nervous system that usually stems from some sort of trauma. Its symptoms include prolonged and excessive pain, changes in skin color, temperature and swelling in the affected area. CRPS is the most painful chronic condition currently known to man, ranking above cancer, childbirth and amputation on the McGill Pain Scale. Despite this, most doctors have never heard of CRPS and are unable to diagnose it in a timely fashion. Ten years later, it has spread from my leg to my entire body, including my organs. At its worst, it has rendered me unable to get up or even move, and has left me writhing on the ground sobbing and screaming. It is the worst pain I have ever experienced.

But back to “Station 19.” In the Season 2 mid-season finale, two of the main characters, Andy Herrera and Robert Sullivan, were trapped in an overturned ambulance and seriously injured. Sullivan sustained a severe crush injury in the accident but seems to make an almost-full recovery after a few months. We are shown a few scenes where he grabs his leg in pain and discomfort. More on that later.

The first two seasons went by in a flash and left me craving more episodes. When it came back for season 3, I was crowing with excitement to my boyfriend. He usually sits with me and does homework while I’m watching the episodes, looking up periodically to see the fires and explosions.

When Episode 3, “Eulogy,” aired on February 15, I was shocked and incredibly excited to see that Battalion Chief Sullivan was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome. Despite valiant efforts by the community, CRPS still greatly lacks in awareness. Aside from a CRPS documentary, I had never seen it featured in any films or movies.

Shonda shows have a penchant for the dramatic, which is part of the reason so many of us enjoy them. I have seen multiple episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” where characters are dying or in severe pain that I have related to on a deeply personal level. I too have spent days in a hospital bed surrounded by doctors and nurses. I too have seen my mother cry in the hallway over the lack of a cure for my condition. I too have suffered and have an uncertain future.

The characters were almost always depicted as heroic fighters, whether they were cured or met tragic ends. So when I saw a character on television that had the same condition as me, I thought, This is it. People are finally going to see what it’s like for us. This could be huge in promoting the awareness that we so desperately need. Finally, people might be able to see just how much we suffer and actually care about it. I had no idea just how wrong I was.

During the episode, we see Chief Sullivan seek out the help of Dr. Tom Koracick, another fan favorite on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Sullivan tells Dr. Koracick that his pain episodes are worsening despite therapy, and the day before, it felt like his leg was on fire. This is a familiar sentiment to those of us with CRPS. Dr. Korackick proceeds to tell Sullivan that he has complex regional pain syndrome and it would likely get worse.

Later on, we see a scene of Sullivan receiving imaging, in which he is groaning and straining in pain. This is similar to what a regular flare is like for a CRPS patient. Then we cut to him meeting with Dr. Koracick, in an exam room, who confirms his diagnosis. When Sullivan points out that if the city finds out about his condition he will likely lose his job, Dr. Koracick says “I’m a surgeon, I cure by cutting, not by creating drug addicts.”

This is a phrase that is sadly common in the CRPS community. As patients, we are often told we are faking, we cannot be helped, and discharged without receiving the treatment we need. Despite the research, CRPS patients are routinely denied pain medications that are often crucial for us to function. Although I had my quips about the episode, they were greatly outshone by the joy and excitement in bringing awareness to the disease. I was excited to keep watching and see where they went with the storyline.

The next time we saw Chief Sullivan was in Episode 5, “Into the Woods.” In this episode, Dr. Koracick refuses to refill Sullivan’s pain prescription, despite his obvious suffering. While helping another firefighter do inventory, he takes two Fentanyl vials and conceals them in his pocket. While it is not explicitly shown, we can deduce that he injected the Fentanyl into his body while at the firehouse, because he is acting giddy and out of character. The other firefighter finds the two vials missing from the medication stores, but says nothing.

After this episode, the disappointment began to set in. It felt like a betrayal. How could they portray Chief Sullivan as an addict? Are there CRPS patients that become addicted to drugs? Absolutely. This is usually due to the fact that they are unable to obtain any pain relief from physicians and are in too much pain to function. And yet this isn’t what the public should be seeing. Anyone from any background can develop an addiction. It was hardly fair considering the years and years the CRPS community has been waiting for awareness. I desperately hoped I was wrong, and they were going to spin it to bring into sharp relief the fact that CRPS patients are too often denied treatment or medication that they need. Despite these uneasy feelings, I waited for the next episodes.

This morning I watched Episode 7, “Satellite of Love.” In this episode, we see Chief Sullivan at work, injecting enough Fentanyl to cause an overdose. He then hallucinates his deceased friend Chief Ripley, who laughs and says “I didn’t see that coming.” I felt a pit in my stomach. Neither did we, Shonda. “What happened to you? Your moral compass?” Ripley says. Sullivan tries to explain his condition saying “it’s pain, it’s real—” before Ripley cuts him off to say, “Whose pain isn’t real?”

Whose pain isn’t real?

Apparently, mine.

This was a devastating blow. How could they demean our pain so blatantly? Would you compare a paper cut to an amputated limb? Would you turn away a woman in labor just because most women experience labor? Would you deny a cancer patient pain medication? I have never been a fan of comparing pain. I do not like the idea of walking around saying to people, “Oh, you’re in physical/mental/emotional pain? Well, mine is worse.” All pain should be validated. Just because it seems smaller than your pain does not mean that someone is not suffering from it. But in times like this, I feel the need to defend myself and start using statistics like the McGill Pain Scale.

As a disclaimer, this is just a television show. I understand that perfectly. I will likely even continue to watch the show in hopes they spin this one minor storyline. I still enjoy the other characters and their storylines. I do not have a personal vendetta against Shonda and company, although my mom and boyfriend might after this episode. This particular bit of TV is going to reach a large audience. Most of them will probably not associate CRPS with drug-seeking behavior simply because they will not be paying enough attention to make the association. But the CRPS community notices. We feel it. And it’s just as invalidating as the doctor that looked me in the eye and made me believe for years that this pain was just in my head.

I think the community as a whole was hoping for something better, some sort of understanding of our daily struggles. The idea that a popular wide-reaching television show was mentioning CRPS was exciting for us, and even more disappointing when it turned out to feel like an unjust portrayal. I am not demanding that the show creators and writers ameliorate this error. In the end, they’re probably too busy with their jobs to pay attention to something as small as this article. What I am doing is starting a conversation with my CRPS community. And what I’m saying is:

You are strong. And your pain is validated.

Image via YouTube.

Originally published: March 23, 2020
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