I consider myself a lucky woman. I have a father who has been present and involved in my life. I confess to more than a little hero worship when it comes to my dad. I’m a through and through daddy’s girl, and he’s always seemed larger than life to me. He’s always supported me and taught me that there is no mountain (both figurative and literal) that I couldn’t climb. A marathon runner, farmer, engineer, and avid outdoorsman, three words that best describe my dad are active, intense, and strong.
For me, watching him battle chronic pain was like watching Superman be exposed to kryptonite. His journey inspires me not because he ultimately became pain-free, but because of the man he became on the other side of the journey. He’ll always be the Man of Steel to me, but his experience smoothed some of his rough edges and brought humility, empathy, and patience. Here is his story.
I live across the country from my dad, so I don’t get to see him as often as I would like. About 5 years ago, he came to visit me, and I knew immediately something was very wrong. Instead of a big bear hug, I got a one arm half hug and a tight smile. Pain was clearly visible on his face. He told me he was just tired from the long 20 hours in the car and needed to rest. A look from my mother told me not to press it, so I let it go.
Over the next couple of days, it became obvious that more than fatigue was bothering him. He didn’t go running; he didn’t ask for a job to do; he didn’t want to go hiking. He just wanted to watch TV and sleep. This man had woken me up at 7 AM every Saturday of my youth with a rousing rendition of his favorite Navy song, Yellow Submarine, so we could get busy with things around the farm. He worked hard and played harder. He didn’t watch TV and sleep!
When Dad didn’t volunteer any information, I finally had to pry it out of him. He was so clearly in pain! Grudgingly, he told me that he was having severe neck pain and headaches. He hadn’t injured himself. It had just begun subtly over the last several months. He hadn’t seen a doctor and refused to take anything for it. He said he would just “tough it out” and wait for it to go away, which was his standard approach to any medical problem.
The nurse inside me came out, and I told him, “This stuff doesn’t just go away. Something is wrong, and you need to see the doctor.” I encouraged, nagged, and begged him to go to the doctor as soon as he got home. I pointed out all the things that he’s missing and asked him why he wanted to continue to suffer in pain.
Dad said, “I’ve had worse pain than this. All pain stops eventually.” Have I mentioned that Dad’s a bit stubborn?
To nobody’s surprise, he didn’t see the doctor. He continued his tough guy routine, though he did ask my sister, a licensed massage therapist, for help. Even after she urged him to see the doctor, he still mulishly refused. He got limited relief with massage therapy and began taking anti-inflammatory medication routinely. After a year, my mother was at the end of her rope. Dad was grumpy and depressed. He wasn’t able to do the things he wanted to do and was taking it out on everyone around him.
Ultimately, the pain became unbearable, and he began to lose feeling and dexterity in his right arm. He went to the doctor. His 7th spinal nerve had severe impingement (pinching) because of a narrowing of the opening between his vertebrae. It needed surgery and needed it soon. The doctor was worried about permanent loss of function if the pressure wasn’t relieved.
That finally got his attention. My dad had a plan to hike the Appalachian Trail when he retired. He was on the cusp of that milestone, and the diagnosis confirmed he wouldn’t be able to complete such a long and arduous hike. He didn’t want to give up on his dream, so he took action. He educated himself on his diagnosis and sought a second opinion. After much discussion, he and his doctor settled on a surgery that would hopefully allow him to have full range of motion and strength in his arm and neck.
Dad also worked to manage his pain instead of simply trying to ignore it. He followed his treatment regimen to the letter. He took his meds and worked within the limitations set by the doctor. For the first time in over a year, he was in control of his pain. He still had significant pain, but it was markedly improved than it had been.
Surgery day came, and we were all a bit nervous. A cervical fusion was not without its risks, but it went off without a hitch. Over the next several months, Dad worked with physical therapy and utilized my sister’s massage expertise to restore much of the strength and flexibility he had lost.
On March 3, 2015, my dad took his first steps on a 6 month journey. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. His neck held up beautifully, and he has since gone on to run several marathons and one 50 mile race. He’s gone spelunking in Caribbean, white water rafting in Colorado, and served a 2 year humanitarian mission with my mom in Sierra Leon, Africa.
When I asked him why it took so long for him to seek help, he told me, “I had never encountered pain that wouldn’t go away. I just kept thinking it was going to get better. Then, I started worrying that it never would. I was scared to death that the doctor would tell me that I had to live with it for the rest of my life.”
I also asked him what he thought the key to his recovery was. Dad said, “Once I had a goal and a plan, I felt like I was in control. Until I got that sorted out, all I could focus on was how badly it hurt and awful I felt. I had to have something to work for, and I had to get my mind right. Once I had it in my head, then it was nothing more than one more mountain to climb.”
Chronic pain recovery is full of mountains to climb, but it is achievable. Educate yourself and arm yourself with knowledge about your condition. Seek out medical advice and find a provider who is dedicated to helping you reach your goals. Set your frame of mind to be empowered and positive. You can be the master of your own destiny. Set your sights on the summit of the mountain and take the first steps!
Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical advice.