Are You Suffering?
Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Third Degree Below.
July 8, 1995 at 8:50 AM was a pivotal moment in my history. One I thought I would never recover from. One I rarely think of anymore.
In the years since, I’ve sometimes had to explain in great depth in interviews with very non-understanding people why I confessed, as required by my signature certifying my honesty on a particular Government form, that I’d had serious suicidal thoughts. Unless you’ve been in great physical pain, I’m not sure you can understand that tremendous need for release from it.
I injured my back that day. Worse. It happened at work on a military base. And for most of the country who have seen TV expose’s of Worker’s Compensation fraud and people drawing tax-free incomes while jet skiing and faking a back injury, well, for most people who didn’t know me, that meant I was just another greedy faker. And that’s how I was treated. If people can’t see the evidence of pain in the form of blood or a gaping wound, they dismiss it.
Which is exactly what the…oh, hell. I really don’t want to call the man a physician. That would give him too much credit. But that’s exactly what he did when I finally was allowed to see a doctor who accepted Worker’s Comp a whole two days later. I didn’t really hurt the first day. My entire back was numb, which was unsettling, but it didn’t exactly hurt until the next day…and then it was excruciating.
Because it happened on a military base with a regional hospital, my boss first thought to send me there, but they turned me away as a civilian and I was told to go to the local emergency room/immediate care doctors, but I had to have certain forms with me…which my bosses couldn’t find at first and then had to figure out how to fill out.
The Department of Labor normally deals with a patient’s employer’s Worker’s Comp insurance company but treats Federal employees differently than those who are privately insured. Differently, as I discovered, translates “like shit.” The Department of Labor IS the Worker’s Comp insurance company equivalent, and that meant almost everything I needed had to be pre-approved by the DOL, regardless of how many weeks or months of pain I spent waiting.
When I finally saw a doctor at the immediate care center, he looked at the paperwork and mumbled something about a back injury on the job. He diagnosed me from across the room. Back strain. Here, take some pain pills and rest for 2 days.
The extent of his examination? “Can you bend to the left? Can you bend to the right?” I could, but with extreme difficulty and pain. No X-ray. But he made his quota of spending less than two minutes with me. Since I wasn’t in hysterics, I could go home. Big mistake. In hindsight, I really should have been the squeaky wheel instead of calm, cool, and tight-jawed against the pain. Or, if I were then who I am now, I would have insisted he come for a closer look and told him that I could bend but it hurt, instead of following his commands silently.
Life went from bad to worse, with him refusing to release me from his “care” and recommending a neurologist 2 hours away who wasn’t cleared as a worker’s comp doctor. See, doctors don’t like dealing with on-the-job injuries because they have to deal with the Department of Labor and often end up spending their time in court as expert witnesses. Some who will normally deal with work injuries won’t touch back injuries, so the idea of finding a physician to help me was much more complicated than anyone realized…or cared.
Three weeks later, I was still going to work every day and doing my job with tears rolling down my cheeks all day. In hindsight, big mistake. The work was getting done so my employers weren’t stressed to do as much as they could, and the DOL assumes that if you can “work,” you’re cured. Finding healing was something that was left up to me, with little to no help from anyone at all, even though I was exhausted and in so much pain that I couldn’t function except through sheer willpower, which was dwindling.
I managed to drive myself to the ER in Crestview and Dr. Foley was able to help with some temporary relief. He took Worker’s Comp in his private practice close to my home—one of the few docs around who would for a back injury—and so I became a regular patient. He helped me get an official (okay with the DOL) referral to a neurologist who took Worker’s Comp patients and I finally saw him in November, only to be told that he was retiring and didn’t want to see any Federal employee back injuries because based on his initial examination, I would need long-term care.
So back to the drawing board, after I’d sat sobbing in my car for a while.
After that referral was withdrawn and a new one given—all had to be very official with the DOL—I finally saw another neurologist…who seemed completely uninterested when I gave him my history. Case in point: he asked what types of daily activities I could no longer do. I said I felt my life was over because I was completely useless as a wife, mother, employee…as a person. I explained that I couldn’t reach into a washing machine to left out a wet garment, that I couldn’t sit in a meeting for more than 5 minutes, that I couldn’t lift a quart of milk to pour for my baby’s cereal, that I’d tried to help my other little girl with her spaghetti but I physically couldn’t cut her noodles with a fork. His response? A classic Beavis and Butthead remark to his nurse: “Cutting noodles, heh. Heh.”
I saw him a number of times for various tests over the next many months, and each time, he would spend the entire time with me getting reacquainted with my history and reading back through my whole chart and asking the same questions as before. I was frustrated and always wanted to take the pen away from him and write things in bold so he’d see it the next time. The only time he ever got worked up was when he saw me use my grandfather’s cane for support while having to stand for 20 minutes, saying that if I used a cane, I’d come to depend on it… even though I couldn’t stand for more than 5 minutes without leaning against a wall, a table, a chair, anything for support.
Our acquaintance ended with him saying that I’d just have to live with my pain and its limitations because he couldn’t figure it out. Oh. So because he couldn’t figure it out, I was therefore doomed? It wasn’t that he couldn’t figure it out that bothered me but rather, but his casual dismissal and his arrogance. I was still in constant pain that never let up. Ever.
I determined then that I was not going to be a cripple for the rest of my life and that I would be happy and productive again and that I would be able to release myself from this pain and have something left over to be creative. It took 27 months and going outside classical medicine to find healing, but I did.
I rarely think of those days anymore. I wouldn’t have believed it possible then that a time would come when I wouldn’t be thinking of the pain at every possible second and it overriding every moment in my life. Any back problems I have now are normal back aches from things like painting ceilings and laying patio bricks. And I cut my noodles just fine, thank you.
But today I read an article on the two questions that every doctor should ask, and it brought everything back at full force.
My sister-in-law, who is in medicine, and I had a talk last Thanksgiving about those inane questions that you get asked in triage. Like, “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst pain you’ve ever had (or can imagine), how bad is the pain?”
If you’ve had a couple of babies and a back injury, that skews the scale somewhat. If the sewing needle logged in my foot is a 5 compared to birthing a stuck baby, then hey, why even bother to go to the doctor? (Note: for the needle in my foot, they took an X-ray…but they didn’t for my back.)
The article I read said instead that a physician should ask, “Are you suffering?” and then “Where does the pain come from?”
If any of my doctors had ever asked that of my back injury!
“Yes, Doctor, I’m suffering. The pain is as bad as childbirth but with no relief in sight, but the real suffering is from feeling so useless and unproductive, in not being able to help myself and in not having any champions to help me either, in being tied up in red tape that I’ve spent years helping others through, in having people who don’t know me assume I’m a crook and having people who do know me question my integrity because they can’t see my injury, in having been a “superstar” to my bosses for years and suddenly I’m a liability because you never know when you’ll have to do more paperwork on me, on not being able to pick up my little girl and carry her anymore and the way she doesn’t understand and takes it as rejection, in being so much trouble to everyone else, in not being able to be a whole person, in not being able to get through all these persistent legal and medical roadblocks, in just hurting all the time and being so tired of hurting and never having any energy left over for anything in me that’s creative and just getting through day by day, moment by moment of pain and being so tempted just to end everything so I can stop hurting but absolutely determined that I still have stories to tell that only I can write and that most of all I won’t give up on raising my girls myself. Yes, Doc, I’m in pain, but more importantly, I’m really, truly suffering and I need your help.”
I’m sometimes asked why I have sneered at so many doctors. It’s because I’ve known more without compassion than with. I have noted, however, that the ones I’ve chosen for myself and my family have been of the compassion variety. It’s the ones chosen for me who have been the real stinkers.