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Publication Date: Wednesday, December 12, 2001

Putting pain to work Putting pain to work (December 12, 2001)

Sufferers say it is possible to find meaning in chronic pain

by Diana Reynolds Roome

Finding meaning in pain may be the last thing someone who is suffering wants to do. First on the agenda is making the agony -- whether physical or emotional -- stop.

But for some people who are in chronic physical pain, finding meaning in the experience may be one of the few positive options available to them. "If pain is going on, you might as well put it to work," said Beto Telleria, founder and director of For Those in Pain Inc., a Mountain View non-profit that offers counseling and free classes in pain management at Palo Alto Medical Clinic and other locations around the Bay Area. "You have a choice -- to muddle through in your mind, or to use the mind, so that you can view pain from a different vantage point. Suffering without meaning is the worst suffering of all." Chronic pain afflicts 20 percent of the population in the United States, despite advances in pain-management practices over the past decade. The struggle to overcome loss and despair zaps so much of a person's energy, there's little left over for living, experts say. "Terrible, unrelenting pain can be destructive -- there are people whose spirits get drowned out by it," said Ernle Young, Ph.D., co-director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. Young has seen the effects of pain in almost all its forms over nearly three decades of work at Stanford University Medical Center, first as chaplain and then as clinical ethics consultant at Stanford and elsewhere. But, Young and other experts say, there can be silver linings to pain: greater compassion for others and a desire to forge something good from something bad. "Those who have suffered or experienced pain typically emerge with a greater empathy for the pains that others are bearing," Young said. "That is probably the most precious thing that comes out of this experience -- that deepened compassion." Sometimes this empathy blossoms into something extraordinary. Richard Weiner, Ph.D., who lives in Palo Alto, was rear-ended by a drunk driver 23 years ago. He suffered severe low-back injuries and chronic pain that led him on a "cosmic search" for relief, taking him from doctor to doctor. While sitting in waiting rooms, he listened to other pain patients. Weiner already had an M.A. in counseling, and was working on a doctorate on urban planning. But his quest to end his own pain slowly transmuted into a deepening concern for other peoples,' and this profoundly changed his focus. He ended up writing one of the first Ph.D. dissertations in modern pain management. Then he began lecturing, and eventually opened up a pain clinic in Modesto. This led to the foundation of the American Academy of Pain Management, an organization that now has 3,000 accredited members in the medical and associated health professions. Now Weiner is being put through the most challenging test of his life. Diagnosed last month with pancreatic cancer, he is receiving intensive treatment at Stanford. "It's a devastating, terrible condition," said Weiner. Yet while suffering constant pain and fatigue, which make it difficult to sit, walk and sleep, he is still working from the Palo Alto apartment where he currently stays. "I look at it as a challenge, and every day in treatment I learn lessons. This will be a new path for me [in my work], so I see a future, which makes every day meaningful. It's a blessing in an odd, weird way." It is people's ability to overcome difficult situations that has inspired Young. "One of the things that's kept me going has been ... seeing the heights to which the spirit can rise in the most desperate circumstances. That has been like a beacon of light to me, and renews my hope in the whole enterprise of being human." Letting go of negativity, Young added, is where the greatest work has to happen. "Most humans find they've got to move on to something more positive, however hard it is initially. What can be salvaged now -- that is the reality," Young said. Pat Dietrich, a Palo Alto nurse and office manager, has experienced all kinds of pain due to osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. "It was a long, slow process of acceptance," said Dietrich, who has had widespread musculoskeletal pain, tender joints, a collapsed tendon, knee surgery and, most recently, hand surgery. When asthma added another level of complication to her life, Dietrich said, "I realized I couldn't let this control me, so I'd better look for ways to deal with it." It was far from easy, but through reading, listening, learning, hypnotherapy, and remembering that there are others in a worse situation than herself, Dietrich reached a place where she can control and accept the pain enough to volunteer for Lifeline, a Stanford-based telephone help line. "Helping people helps me," she said. "I thrive on this. But as for finding meaning in pain, I would just as soon grab it and throw it out!" "I wouldn't ask for this disease," said Weiner. "But I have it, so I can learn from it and try to have dignity. So many people are inadequately educated and treated for pain, and what I hear now is the silent scream of others. We all die, but it's how we live and how we die that matters." Contact For Those In Pain, Inc. at www.forthoseinpain.org


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