The day that changes everything is often an otherwise normal day.
For Gabrielle Dion Visca, it was a Tuesday. February, 2013. She was teaching her second Zumba class of the night after a long work day at her day job. And that’s when it happened.
“As I was transitioning from one step to the next, I noticed I couldn’t feel my right foot,” she explained. “I chalked it up to a pesky wardrobe malfunction, flipped off my shoes, and kept instructing. I ignored it.”
But by the end of the month, Dion Visca couldn’t feel any sensation in either of her feet most of the time—a neuropathic anomaly that her late mother had shared. After an MRI, her orthopedic physician explained to her that while we all lose spinal fluid as we age, as an athlete—particularly as an avid distance runner—her spine was losing fluid a lot more quickly than the average woman her age.
The diagnosis: degenerative disc disease
Like worn out brakes on a car hitting metal, Dion Visca’s discs were rubbing bone-on-bone. “I can’t even describe how painful it was,” she said. “I had to quit teaching Zumba, which broke my heart and hurt worse than any amount of physical pain I’d endured to that point.”
And then it got worse. Months of nerve blocks, experimental methylene blue injections, excruciating discogram procedures, epidural needles, and nausea from the OxyContin were wearing on her. “I just wanted to get better so I could work and teach class again.”
Dion Visca’s condition deteriorated quickly. Her husband often needed to help her to get out of bed in the morning. “He watched me cross the finish line of my first marathon and here he suddenly was now as a caretaker of a crippled person,” she said. “That wasn’t easy.”
By late 2014, Dion Visca admits she had become increasingly reliant upon opiates every day to try to manage her pain. The corporate management position she’d held for the past 12 years was now in jeopardy. “I just wasn’t getting better. And now all of my daily decisions had became about that. My life revolved around this injury and trying to manage my pain. So since I was young and still relatively healthy, I decided to go ahead with surgery when it was recommended.”
As Dion Visca was recovering from the laminectomy and fusion to her lumbar spine, a pedicle screw shifted and became dislodged. “It was acutely painful and started affecting my gait,” she explained. “As a newlywed trying to rehab in the Nevada sunshine after my surgery, it was terrifying to note that I not only not improving, I was actually getting worse.”
As her pain was worsening, her Nevada surgeons continued to attempt to numb the pain with nerve blocks and pain medication, but by July 2016, she was back under the knife again. Her third major surgery in 28 months, this one would be massive, risky, and take more than 8 hours. “I signed documents stating that I understood I may never walk again or die in surgery. I was encouraged to file for federal disability in case I woke up paralyzed,” she said. It was terrifying.
Like her birth state of Ohio, Nevada’s opiate laws had become particularly cruel and Dion Visca knew that rehabilitating after surgery would be a fight not only to regain her ability to walk, but also a fight to control her growing addiction to opiates. “My husband pled with the surgeon for some other answer than another prescription of Vicodin. He kept mentioning to my doctors that I was getting addicted to these things, and that they weren’t making me any better.”
Her Nevada orthopedic surgeon had a suggestion. “She needs to try medical marijuana,” the surgeon replied to Dion Visca and her husband firmly. “I can’t recommend it, but it’s legal for medical patients in Nevada, so she should find a recommending doctor and try it.”
A New Option for Pain Management
As someone who had only smoked marijuana recreationally a few times (and likely not correctly), Dion Visca said she didn’t even know where to start with learning how to medicate with cannabis. “I’d go into the Nevada dispensaries and ask all manner of stupid questions to the budtenders.”
After a few hits and misses with other products and routes of administration, she found she could control her pain tolerably with edibles. “As I started down the path toward recovery six months after my second back surgery, I found if I had coffee in the morning with a heavy sativa strain of edible, that I could actually function again and be productive during the day.”
It was a game-changer for Dion Visca’s degenerative disc disease to finally get the pain control she needed to go back to doing full-time online work from home. She accepted a position as a medical journalist writing medical content for a company called Patient Pop.
“As I started to become comfortable with how to use cannabis effectively, I was able to get in a therapy pool every day and attack my rehab. I was able to become less reliant on the opiates. I was able to go back to doing meaningful work again, to regain my independence, to bravely leave a marriage that wasn’t helping me to get better, and to move back to Ohio and begin working and thriving again.”
Dion goes on: “My story—like so many other advocates—is proof that medical marijuana works. Despite all the stigma and silly misconceptions about cannabis, personal stories of triumph through properly medicating naturally, coupled with groundbreaking research coming from leading universities each day, shows that Ohio needs this.”
“My story—like so many other advocates—is proof that medical marijuana works. Despite all the stigma and silly misconceptions about cannabis, personal stories of triumph through properly medicating naturally, coupled with groundbreaking research coming from leading universities each day, shows that Ohio needs this.”Gabrielle Dion Visca, Ohio medical marijuana patient and cannabis activist
In a state where the heroin crisis is killing its citizens by the thousands, Dion Visca says advocates in Ohio need to stand up and shed a light not just on medical marijuana as medicine, but as one of many alternative paths to healing. As a chronic pain patient, she uses medical marijuana as part of a natural treatment modality that also incorporates yoga, stretching, massage, and lifestyle changes. She has lived opiate free for more than seven months.
“Ohio is on the precipice of changing lives for the better. As a medical journalist and a chronic pain patient, I felt called to be a beacon for those who need a different way to heal because the old way isn’t working any more. I wanted to challenge the status quo in conservative Ohio, but not just do it with my opinions, but with journalism.”
Dion Visca recently founded MedicateOH, a 501c3 non-profit cannabis news and advocacy publication and is also working for Verilife dispensary in Cincinnati.
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