Refusing "Retirement" Despite Osteoarthritis Challenges
Many of our readers are aware that I left my work in East Africa early this year and returned to the U.S. in hopes of finding medical help for the incredible pain in my low back. At times, the pain became totally unbearable and I was almost unable to walk (I'm sure that sounds familiar to many)! So far, I haven't been able to find a "solution."
I've been a single parent for over 30 years with three wonderful kids, (well, they are adults now, but still pretty neat) and I also have eight grandkids. Financially, times were pretty rough since teachers weren't paid a great deal, and I usually worked a part-time second job to help pay the bills. Many people have said "I don't know how you did that - where did you find the energy?" The reality is, I wasn't vying for an award or trying to impress anyone - I was just trying to survive!
As my OA progresses (and I still don't know why it's called "progress"), my tenacity has become a major survival skill for me! I've survived a stroke, cancer and surgery for nine artificial joints. I gratefully qualified to retire early from teaching since I had too much experience and too much education. I was simply costing the schools too much money. Instead of feeling my life was over at retirement, I began a new life.
I know many of my friends love playing cards or bingo, going to women's groups, shopping, etc. That's fine for them, but it simply isn't me. After being diagnosed with OA, I decided to travel as much as possible because I love to learn. Since then I've been on five continents and 41 countries (including nine in Africa). I am a photo-journalist, so I of course traveled to Africa to "shoot" the animals; however, I fell in love with the people. Because of my feelings for the African people, I've been living and working there several months each year, primarily volunteer teaching with street kids in prison, as well as helping women realize their potential and start sustainable businesses.
WATCH ME has become my catch phrase. I was "informed" by guides that, due to my walking challenges, I would be unable to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. I exclaimed "Watch Me" - oh, by the way, I've now climbed part of her two times! Last year, I was hired by a foundation in Cape Town to fly to Madagascar and climb high into the Rainforests and photograph nine species of endangered lemurs, as well as Indri and Sifakas. Most of these animals had never seen people (we hadn't seen them either), and it was obviously a dream come true for me! When I arrived, my driver realized my physical challenges and told me it would not be safe to "do" the rainforest due to lack of paths, rain-slick forest floor, etc. I sat on a log and cried a little (probably even cursed a little) then begged the driver to at least let me try - remember the slogan. Yes, I did the project successfully and the experience was incredible. You notice that I didn't say it was easy - it wasn't - but I did something that few people will ever attain. Again, I wasn't trying to impress anyone; this is something I really wanted to accomplish, and my tenacity kicked in!
My medical frustrations continue in America as my back continues to deteriorate. I've had the injections into the nerves on the left side of my spine which gave me some pain relief for a few weeks at a time. Although I've always refused ANY pain meds, my neurologist and my orthopedist convinced me that my only "solution" was to go on three different narcotic prescriptions 24 hours a day. Against my better judgment, I decided to try them.
After two months of frequent falls (always to the left because of the nerve damage), and not really thinking very straight, I begged my doctors to let me stop all of the narcotics, which I did. I have not taken ANY pain meds of any type for several months now.
People who don't know me say "you must have a high pain tolerance", and "you must not be in pain!" I'm always in pain, it's chronic, but I won't let it destroy my life. I'll admit, that, at times, the pain becomes excruciating, but I keep on keepin' on. I don't talk about my pain usually, and TRY to be pro-active in my health care.
A couple of weeks ago, I felt "whipped" by my pain for the first time - I felt like I'd been kicked in the gut! I wasn't sleeping at night, and I wasn't terribly productive during the day, although I still have my photography company as well as a small custom cooking/baking business. Out of desperation, I finally called my neurologist, who informed me that only narcotics could ease any of the pain, and since I can't take them, there was NOTHING he could do! I then called my orthopedic surgeon who said the same thing and also informed me that there was nothing they could do to "fix" my back either! I was understandably devastated!
After about three days of falling apart and depression, WATCH ME kicked in. I do have friends in the medical field, so called one, told her what was happening and begged for suggestions. Within a few short minutes, she came up with five different medical resources in our area: a physician that does acupuncture (yes, my insurance covers her), two back specialists in a well-known local orthopedic clinic, a doctor who only deals with pain management, a neurologist new to our area and a Physical Therapist who deals with this kind of challenge. I also visited some close friends on their farm in the eastern part of our state who introduced me to a healer there who is interested in seeing if she can help me! I know that many people in the U.S. have never worked with a healer, but I've had one in Africa who made a major difference in my recovery from a total knee transplant! After all of my OA surgeries and therapies, I'm finding that non-traditional medicine can be helpful to me!
I DO have hope, now. Yes, in spite of the recent injections, I'm still in pain, but I now know of many alternatives for help. There will never be a "cure" for my OA, but I can continue with a productive life!
My favorite definition: PATIENCE - "the ability to listen to your own thoughts, above the noise of the world." I have OA, but it doesn't have me! WATCH ME!!!!!