Chronic Pain: A Story With No End
As I close the chapters of my undergrad life, I find myself pausing to reflect on the difficult journey that got me here.
Just shy of halfway through my senior year of college, I woke up with incredible stomach pain. It was the week before finals and two days after my semester-long internship had finished.
I stumbled out of my room. My roommate was about to leave for a day on set, but when she saw my pale, sweaty face she paused.
“I’ll be fine,” I assured her. “I think I’m going to drive myself to urgent care.”
“OK…Call me if you need anything.”
I packed a bag and got in my car. The pain wasn’t constant, so I was pretty confident I could get to the urgent care center on the other side of town. It was only a 10 minute drive.
When I got there, I found it difficult to stand at the front desk and sign in. Surprisingly, I also found it difficult to sit down. I couldn’t take a deep breath without a pain shooting through my back and stomach, somewhere right of my belly button. I also felt dizzy and nauseated, but I hadn’t eaten yet that day and the doctor wanted to order more scans. For a clear read, I couldn’t have anything in my stomach.
After 15 or 20 minutes, an attendant showed me to a room while I waddled slowly after her. I found some relief reclining on the doctor’s padded exam table.
The doctor came in and poked around. She ordered a pregnancy test, despite my insistence to the contrary. Finally, she told me she thought I might have appendicitis, but this building didn’t have the scanning equipment. She directed me to a hospital less than two miles down the road, and asked if she should call an ambulance for me. Ever the independent woman, I declined. I was feeling a little better since lying down, plus I didn’t want to leave my car behind.
Armed with paperwork that was supposed to shoot me to the front of the emergency room line, I got back in my car.
That was the longest two-mile drive of my life. I drove one-handed, while my left hand clutched my belly. I regretted not accepting the help that was offered to me in the form of an ambulance. Finally, with the hospital in sight, a construction man decided to make the car right in front of me the last one through a one-lane street. I burst into tears as my pain burned red-hot. I got to the ER with tears and sweat salting my face, only to be asked to take a seat and wait my turn. Again.
I know I spent a long, exhausting day in that hospital, but the details are a blur. I got a CAT scan that ruled out appendicitis. I was refused water, food, and medication by the female doctor who told me to go home and take some Midol for my cramps.
With tears of rage, pain, hunger, and utter exhaustion, I told her quite clearly that this pain was not normal and not something I could control on my own. She said the only way the hospital could offer me medication for pain control was if I had someone there with me. My roommate could leave set long enough to pick me up and take me home, but couldn’t sit with me for an hour for the drugs to be ordered and administered. My family lives 600 miles from my college. My best friend was in England for the semester. I even tried contacting the guy I was dating, who was busy, and my cousin at work an hour away. I was baffled that I could be in a hospital and feel so utterly isolated and helpless. At one point, a lab tech told me that if I couldn’t stop shaking and crying, she couldn’t perform the exam that might solve my pain. I did my best, but still got no answers.
Finally, I checked myself into the hospital for an overnight stay. If I wasn’t driving home, the doctor agreed to give me morphine. My roommate texted me again when she left work, and I asked her to bring me some food because I still hadn’t eaten that day and the hospital kitchen was closed by the time I was check in for the night. At 10 p.m., 11 hours after I left my house, I ate my first meal. The morphine controlled my pain, but did not take it away. When my roommate left, I fell into a fretful sleep.
My mom arrived the next morning to check me out and took me back to my house. She helped me pack and drove me back home with her. I emailed all my professors and opted to take incompletes in all 19 units I was enrolled in that semester.
A month later, I had an inconclusive laparoscopic surgery. Two months later, the spring semester started. I tried to attend class, but had to leave after 30 minutes. I didn’t return to campus for another five months.
It’s been over a year. I’ve seen specialists up and down California, but not found answers in any scan, blood work, allergy test, procedure, or diet change. I work with a wonderful doctor who treats me as a person, not a list of symptoms.
I’m a college graduate now, through sheer force of will. I earned my degree (communications studies) and two minors (applied psychology and holistic wellness). I consider myself a storyteller, which makes it frustrating that this story doesn’t have a conclusion. Every day is still a balance of what I can do, how far I can walk, how long I can sit up. I’ve discovered yin yoga and mindfulness meditation. I listen to my body and honor its limits. I still smile and laugh daily, so the people outside my support group don’t see my pain. They don’t know my story. Now, you do.
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