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Pain, pills and the Amherst pain doctor in the middle

After seeing doctor after doctor, 15 in all, Kristin Penfold was still in agony.

Even simple things like washing her own hair or picking up her infant daughter proved to be a struggle for the former dancer.

And then she found Dr. Eugene Gosy.

“He gave me my life back,” Penfold says. “After years of suffering, he was the one who finally figured out what was wrong with me.”

Three years later, she feels normal again. And she’s quick to add that, no, she’s not on any of the highly addictive pain killers that brought federal investigators to Gosy’s front door.

For others, many of them former patients, there’s a different Dr. Gosy. For them, the 114-count indictment charging him with illegally doling out narcotics is simply confirmation of their suspicions.

“We know so many people he’s overmedicated,” said Susan, the mother of a former Gosy patient who spoke on the condition her real name not be used.

Susan’s son, who is now in his 50s, survived a car accident, but it left him with a herniated disc. He went to Gosy for his pain but, according to his mother, soon found himself in detox, withdrawing from the myriad meds Gosy prescribed for him.

Even worse, she says she believes the overmedication caused damage to her son’s frontal lobe.

Two very different tales of a doctor who, right or wrong, has become a symbol of the overdose epidemic in this community.

For many of Gosy’s patients, the criminal prosecution is nothing more than a search for a scapegoat, someone to blame for the ongoing pain medication crisis.

“They’ve targeted a good man who’s done nothing but care for his patients,” said Cecile Reszka of Amherst, a Gosy patient for more than two decades.

When the allegations against Gosy became public – he’s accused of operating a criminal conspiracy that issued more than 300,000 illegal prescriptions in four years – his patients reacted with anger, disbelief and fear.

Almost overnight, two Facebook pages – one for patients, the other for supporters – popped up. It also became clear that Gosy had his share of prominent people as patients and some of them, including WBEN talk show host Tom Bauerle, were not shy about criticizing the prosecution.

Even more significant, perhaps, Gosy’s arrest prompted patients like Reszka to talk publicly about illnesses and injuries that were previously very private.

After 23 years with Gosy, Reszka will tell you that the doctor is responsible for finding a way to manage the chronic and often debilitating pain in her right ankle. She also will tell you quite bluntly that, after the car accident that left her with permanent nerve damage, she was suicidal and Gosy helped save her.

“Dr. Gosy is the reason I can walk,” she said. “He’s a godsend.”

Not all of his patients are fans, but critics with a story to tell are often reluctant to come forward because of Gosy’s widespread support.

Many of them see the federal prosecution as long overdue and Gosy as a doctor all too quick to pull out his prescription pad. They also look at the size of his caseload – 8,000 to 10,000 active patients – and wonder if it’s almost inevitable that some of the people in his care are abusing their meds.

“He gave me stuff where I couldn’t even function,” said Don, a longtime patient who spoke on the condition he not be identified.

Many Gosy critics don’t want their identities revealed because of the doctor’s popularity and because they feel prosecutors have painted them as drug addicts.

Even though he remains with Gosy, Don, who has chronic pain due to head and hand injuries, thinks his practice is simply too big to ensure adequate oversight and avoid abuse.

He also thinks the doctor was asking for trouble.

Gosy, who has lost his license to prescribe narcotics, pleaded not guilty when he was arraigned in Buffalo federal court last month.

His lawyer, Joel L. Daniels, didn’t dispute the accounts of his client’s large caseload and, in fact, reminded the court that Gosy’s practice treats thousands of patients with disabling pain. He also said the government’s case overreaches in that it escalates technical issues regarding Gosy’s practice into criminal activity.

Gosy, meanwhile, has been absent from the public eye, except for a surprise appearance on Bauerle’s talk show. He said very little about the allegations against him but thanked his patients for supporting him.

“This is not the time or place to exculpate myself,” Gosy told Bauerle, “or to respond to the wild character assassination attempts that have been directed against, not only myself, but at the thousands of chronic pain patients in Western New York.”

Practice grew rapidly

A native of Hungary, Gosy came to Buffalo as a medical resident, and it was here that he first witnessed the benefits pain management can bring to long-suffering patients. He opened his own practice in 1999 and, over the years, saw it grow into one of the biggest pain treatment centers in the state.

His patients say the rapid expansion is rooted in Gosy’s willingness to practice pain management, a field most other doctors avoid. They also claim he’s the referral of choice for primary care physicians across the region.

“I love the guy,” says Jeffrey Purcell, a 40-year-old patient from Depew.

Rear-ended by a drunk driver while waiting at a stop sign in 2003, Purcell was left with three herniated discs in his back. He was also in constant pain and, while still in his 30s, found himself using a walker to get around.

After trying everything from massage to surgery, he finally tried painkillers. Purcell is currently on oxycodone and nucynta, two types of opiods.

“Yes, I take my meds everyday, but at least I’m functioning,” he said.

Like many of Gosy’s patients, Purcell is quick to defend his doctor. He’s also quick to dismiss any suggestion that Gosy plays fast and loose with prescriptions, and says it wasn’t uncommon for the doctor’s nurse practitioners to reject his request for more meds.

In doing this story, The Buffalo News talked to more than two dozen patients and former patients and almost all of them, even some of those critical of Gosy, recounted stories of unannounced pill counts to make sure they were using them only as prescribed and random urine tests by his staff.

One longtime patient said he left Gosy a year ago when the office started screening for alcohol use. He said a large number of patients tested positive and saw their meds reduced.

“I told him, ‘I’m not a criminal, and I don’t like being treated like one,’” said the 62-year-old retired tool and die maker.

Patient after patient who talked to The News made a point of stressing what they saw as a tightly run ship. They say practices that are common at other doctors’ offices, such as early refills and telephone renewals, were rare at Gosy’s office.

“He doesn’t give out drugs like candy,” said Robin Stephan, a 61-year-old patient from West Seneca.

Like a lot of Gosy’s patients, Stephan sees him as a savior of sorts. She tried alternatives to the pain medication she’s on now, including steroids and physical therapy, but nothing worked.

Now, with Gosy’s help, she can drive and do some housework and laundry.

“He’s dedicated his whole life to people in pain, and look where it got him,” Stephan said of the federal prosecution.

When Justin DeJac first met Gosy, he broke down crying. Even now, a year later, he remembers his surprise when the doctor asked him what he wanted from his treatment. No one else ever had.

He told Gosy he wanted the ability to play with his two daughters and cook for his family. A 2008 workplace injury left him with four herniated discs in his back and three more in his neck.

“They don’t understand that Daddy can’t pick them up or play on the floor with them,” he said of his daughters.

DeJac says Gosy was able to do what no other doctor had done – pinpoint the treatment that was best for him. Now, years later, he’s able to cook and play with his girls. He even went out trick-or-treating on Halloween, a family event that until last year was too difficult for him.

“I told my nurse practitioner, ‘You don’t know what that means to me,’ ” he said.

State’s No. 1 provider

When you talk to Gosy’s patients, many of them grapple with the size of his practice – more than 8,000 active patients. Even those who believe in him wonder if there was a percentage of people under his care who were addicts.

It’s also no secret that federal investigators have been watching Gosy for years, and that one of the biggest reasons is the sheer size of his practice.

Five years ago, The News published a series of stories about the abuse of painkillers and, even then, Gosy was distributing more controlled substances than any other doctor in New York. At the time, some 2,700 doctors were referring patients to him.

When the indictment came last month, Gosy’s status as one of the biggest prescribers of opiods surfaced again.

“He was the No. 1 prescriber in New York,” John P. Flickinger, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office in Buffalo, said at the time. “Dr. Gosy wrote more prescriptions than one of the largest hospitals in New York City.”

The indictment claims Gosy set up a prescription-renewal process that resulted in 300 illegal renewals each day. The lead prosecutor on the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney George C. Burgasser, said at last month’s news conference announcing the indictment that the doctor also engaged in “batch signing” prescriptions that his staff would line up on a daily basis.

The charges against Gosy range from conspiracy to distribute controlled substances to the unlawful distribution of narcotics.

Mary Ann, a former patient from Alden who asked that her name not be revealed, says she has firsthand experience with Gosy’s over-reliance on narcotics.

“He ruined my life,” she says.

Now 78, Mary Ann started seeing Gosy for chronic Lyme disease, a condition that went undiagnosed for several years and eventually forced her into a wheelchair. When Gosy prescribed her a narcotic commonly used for bipolar patients, she started noticing serious symptoms that she says were side effects of the new drug.

“Within two weeks, I lost all muscle control, and now I can’t get it back,” Mary Ann said.

Susan, the Depew woman whose son went to Gosy, says of the narcotics that Gosy gave her son, “He just kept adding, adding and adding.”

The “countless” prescriptions, according to Susan, turned her son into a different person who became angry and anti-social. Eventually, she says, he was diagnosed with frontal lobe brain damage.

Prosecutors went ever further, comparing Gosy to a street-level drug dealer.

“The defendant’s criminal conduct was orchestrated, pervasive, intentional and contrary to established medical practice,” U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said at the time of his indictment. “In other words, acting like a drug dealer without medical reason to prescribe these drugs.”

But one of Gosy’s patients, Kristin Penfold, the young mother from Lancaster, is hoping he returns. Even after the indictment charging him with illegally prescribing drugs, she’s standing by her doctor.

She’s also quick to remind anyone who will listen that, of the 15 doctors she went to, Gosy was the only one to correctly diagnose her problem – a little known neuromuscular disease called myasthenia gravis. He also made it possible for her to cope with it. With the exception of a brief period, Penfold has never been on addictive painkillers, opting instead for treatments involving steroids and muscle relaxers.

“He’s not a monster,” said Penfold. “All I know is that I can walk with my daughter and wash my hair now.”