Health

Former Cedar Rapids civil rights official talks about life after opioids

LaSheila Yates opens up about chronic pain, her decision to stop taking medication

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CEDAR RAPIDS — LaSheila Yates is not defined by her chronic pain.

A former Cedar Rapids civil rights official whose career was paused by her health, Yates is navigating a new world as an advocate and community leader while dealing with chronic pain.

“Now that it’s been a new year, there’s ways I can make contributions and help my community in a meaningful way after going through these challenging life experiences,” Yates said.

And for more than a year, she’s been doing it without the opioid medication she had previously relied on.

“The opioids, for me, had served a purpose. When it didn’t serve a purpose, I had to get off,” she said.

Yates, the former executive director of the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission and chief diversity officer for the city of Cedar Rapids, became an advocate for those dealing with chronic pain after similar experiences in her own life.

She describes herself as a go-getter, a person who loves to work with people to solve a common problem. But when she got sick, “a lot of those things changed,” she said. Yates left the Civil Rights Commission in December 2018, after four years as its executive director, as a result of these health concerns.

Yates, a Louisiana native, began experiencing health issues in 2008. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a disease that causes long-lasting inflammation and painful ulcers in the digestive tract.

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Doctors at the Mayo Clinic determined that because of the damage caused by the ulcerative colitis, her entire large intestine had to be removed.

She went on to have seven surgeries between 2015 and 2016. One such surgery created a J-pouch, which is a pouch inside the body that collects waste.

The pouch tore, leaking waste into her abdomen and sending her into septic shock that landed her in the emergency room on New Year’s Eve of 2015.

Since then, Yates said whenever she travels, she maps out the nearest route to a hospital.

These health issues have led to chronic low back pain, leading her to use a wheeled walker and a cane for mobility.

Starting in 2015, Yates was prescribed opioid medications. They eased her pain, but she felt “like a zombie.”

By late 2017, she described a feeling of “waking up” — realizing she was falling often, dropping things frequently and that there were gaps in her memory. She has photos of those years, but has no recollection of the circumstances around those moments.

She had resigned from the Civil Rights Commission shortly after deciding to go off the opioid medication and stayed in Texas during the winter holiday season with her family, who helped her through the transition.

She now has regular visits with a Cedar Rapids pain clinic and with a pain psychiatrist.

Yates still has pain — “every second, every minute of my life,” she said. The key lesson has been learning her limit and setting realistic expectations, she said.

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She understands that some people need opioid medication to function, but it just wasn’t best for her. Each person should choose what works best for them, she added.

Yates’ advice to those considering alternatives to opiates is to find a primary care provider whom they are comfortable communicating with, and to have a support system.

“Do what’s best for your quality of life and make sure you have other people in your corner, even if only one other person,” she said.

Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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