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Patients defend doctor, bemoan loss of drugs

By David Bruce

When he takes his painkillers, Robert Holmes can coach his son's baseball team or mow his lawn.

But Holmes hasn't been able to get any OxyContin since state and federal narcotics agents raided his doctor's east Erie office.

"The pain is so intense, I have no quality of life," said Holmes, 40, who suffered nerve damage during a lung biopsy in 2002 and now tucks a pillow under his jacket to protect his ribs when he goes out in public.

"I'm either on the couch or the recliner," he added. "I have pain 24 hours a day."

Holmes was one of more than 20 chronic-pain patients who gathered Monday morning at the Siebenbuerger Club to defend their physician, Paul Heberle, D.O.

The patients are incensed that the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency are targeting Heberle, and worried that no other doctor will prescribe the drugs they said they need to function.

"I called 37 other doctors, and I can't get an appointment with any of them," said Holmes, who lives in Millcreek Township. "I'm sad for Dr. Heberle, and I'm mad because things shouldn't have to get like this."

Heberle, who declined comment Monday on the advice of his attorney, has not been charged with any crime. He has temporarily closed his practice.

Agents entered the South East Medical Center, 1306 E. 38th St., on April 11 and left with patient files. They are investigating Heberle's narcotic-prescribing patterns, according to the affidavit of probable cause they gave him.

The investigation began in January after one of Heberle's patients died from an apparent overdose of the painkiller fentanyl. Local pharmacists complained to the Attorney General's Office about Heberle's prescribing practices.

Heberle's patients spoke Monday at a news conference organized by the Pain Relief Network, a New York -based advocacy group that supports patients with chronic pain and the doctors who treat them. The group has set up a legal defense fund for Heberle.

"This is a battle for the hearts and minds of the public," said Siobhan Reynolds, president of the Pain Relief Network. "We want to shine some light on this matter now, not when the doctor gets to court and his fate is sealed."

Lisa Mello was willing to speak publicly about Heberle because he saved her life, she said.

Chronic pain in Mello's neck and elsewhere made her so miserable that she tried to kill herself in June.

She was admitted to Millcreek Community Hospital, where Heberle works as an emergency physician. He took over her care and prescribed narcotics to alleviate her constant pain.

"I wasn't totally out of pain, but I could function. I was more like my old self," said Mello, 36, who now works in Heberle's office.

When the office was raided and Heberle closed his practice, it was Mello who tried to comfort dozens of his patients.

"I knew what they were going through," Mello said. "I tried to make appointments for them with other doctors, but no one would take them. I knew that I wouldn't have much of a chance, either."

Many physicians are reluctant to prescribe narcotics except for short-term use, a Pennsylvania Medical Society official said.

"I don't know of any crackdown by the DEA, but I have heard of physicians who are reluctant to prescribe these drugs long-term," said Jeff Greenawalt, the society's director of public health and professional licensure.

Holmes and his wife, Dorothy, who suffers chronic pain from a bone disease, even went to a methadone clinic to get medication that would prevent withdrawal sickness.

They were rejected, Holmes said.

"So I have all this pain, and I'm going through withdrawal, too," said Holmes, who requires an oxygen tank to breathe. "I'm supposed to get exercise to help with my lung disease, but I can't do anything because of the pain. What am I supposed to do?"

DAVID BRUCE, can be reached at 870-1736 or by e-mail.

Erie Times "Patients Rally for Doctor Heberle" - JET-TV Action News; 2005-08-02
"Erie Doctor Draws Support for Defense" - AP Newswire; 2005-08-06

Paul Heberle is a remarkable doctor. He continues to see patients free, in their homes, even as he faces 22 years in prison. Now his patients and the larger Erie community are stepping up to support him publicly in an unprecedented show of support and awareness.

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