Denise Coleman’s back pain began when she was just twelve. At first, it was mainly just a nuisance. By the time she was in college, however, the pain interfered with her ability to function to the point that she had to take several leaves of absence. It was not until her marriage ended, when she was twenty-four, that she went back to school while raising a two-year old daughter.
As she worked on finishing her degree, Denise and her parents sought answers about the cause of her back pain. For years, the medical community discounted the extent of her pain, attributing it to growing pains and poor stress management. Without having her pain validated, it was hard for Denise not to believe it was all in her head or that she was not strong enough to overcome.
In 1970, Denise underwent the first of three lumbar laminectomies, a surgery that removes the posterior arch of a lumbar vertebra to relieve pressure on the spinal cord. After receiving a diagnosis of spinal instability, she had an anterior/posterior spinal fusion in 1994. This procedure fuses together two vertebrae surrounding a disc using rods and screws. While the aggressive operation saved Denise from a life of paralysis, she still had debilitating pain.
To relieve the pain, she has tried physical therapy and massage therapy, a myriad of prescription drugs, spinal manipulation under anesthesia, epidural injections and spinal steroid injections. She was in a body cast for several months during her senior year of high school, wore a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit for two years. In 1987, she spent three weeks in a residential pain management program, only to return home with the same medications.
In 1997, Denise was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a progressive autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms are determined mostly by the location of the MS lesions. Denise experiences extreme fatigue, numbness, muscle spasms or spasticity, mobility and gait problems, and double and blurry vision.
Denise finally found a neurologist who understood the realities of chronic pain. Through his referral, she found a pain specialist who recommended implanting an intrathecal pump, which delivers continuous pain medication directly to the spine. The pump has given Denise significant pain control without the side effects of taking the medications orally. To deal with occasional breakthrough pain, she takes oxycodone.
By the end of 1998, Denise knew she could no longer fulfill her responsibilities as vice president of Bank Street College. Three weeks after her daughter graduated law school, Denise, at the age of 47, left her career and applied for disability. She moved from the suburbs to Manhattan because she could no longer drive and wanted to maintain some independence by using a motorized scooter and public transportation. She depends on others to help her with household chores and shopping. Having worked so hard to overcome the challenges she faced has made it especially difficult for Denise to accept this loss of independence.
Through it all, Denise has learned the difference between the reality of her circumstances and real failure. While pain might force her to rethink her goals and timelines, it has not stopped her from living an accomplished life. Against many odds, Denise obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and had a successful twenty-year career in higher education. As a single mother, she always strived to keep her own pain from having an overriding impact on her daughter’s life. Denise has been active on two boards of directors, volunteers with the American Pain Foundation’s Action Network, and has developed the Chronic Pain Awareness Project to educate others about the realities of chronic pain.
Denise has also been proactive in her recovery. She researched her illness so she could become her own best advocate, and searched until she found a doctor who understood pain. Denise has educated her support system about her pain, and became comfortable asking for assistance when she needed it. In the midst of adversity and pain, she learned to adapt to her situation and found that there are always ways she can make a difference. Recently, she has found great pleasure in writing short stories.
“I view myself as an independent woman who overcame a great deal of physical, emotional, social and financial challenges to raise a wonderful daughter alone and build a successful career. While it can be difficult for me to accept my limitations, I keep moving forward, as I know I have more to contribute. As long as I take care of myself and listen to my body, I can continue to live a fulfilling and worthwhile life. Pain will not stop me from being a good mother, grandmother, successful woman and mentor.”