I was recently made aware of a post written by a patient suffering from occipital neuralgia. This disorder is a terribly debilitating neurological condition often characterized by unremitting pain in the back of the head and neck that, if left untreated, can lead to pain in the temples and face. The gist of her essay was that at times, the burden of this chronic pain was so overwhelming that there was a desire to just ‘get off the train’ to make it stop. I read this post with sadness and empathy and had been chewing on its message for the past several days. I then began to reply with a message of hope which, in the case of ON, I believe is very real and possible. Over the years, I have seen numerous patients who came to believe there was nothing anyone could do to help them. These patients felt abandoned by their doctors who either didn’t understand their condition, didn’t care or simply didn’t know what to do despite the best of intentions. In fact, despite beating the drum about the surgical treatment of ON, I continue to find that many physicians remain skeptical or simply unaware that a good treatment option exists. Aside from the actual physical, emotional and psychological burden of the actual pain, this perceived state of affairs causes further trauma and often leads to outright despair on the part of the patient. Yet somehow, through sheer grit and a desire to keep looking for solutions, they arrived at my office. Happily, in the overwhelming majority of cases we found a path forward together - not always a cure, but a significant improvement in their daily pain that made their lives better and restored their belief that things would eventually be ok. The fulfillment derived from the ability to give someone their lives back in this way cannot be put into words and is the reason doctors do what they do. The take-home message was simply to never give up hope, to always look for answers, even if you had to look outside the box and to have the knowledge that a solution is always possible, just sometimes harder to find.
As I began to finalize this post, I heard from the husband of a former patient who, in the prime of her life had just passed away from an accident at home. I had operated on her for ON almost 4 years to the day and happily, she had done very well. There were other pain-related issues with which we were also able to help and the road to recovery was far from smooth, but her ability to stay positive and always look towards the future overpowered the years of suffering. She was a true warrior and recently had essentially weaned off of all of her medication. She looked like a new person when I last saw her with a smile and brightness I hadn’t appreciated on her initial visits. I can’t help but feel in my soul that what truly sustained and ultimately healed her was the love of her amazing & devoted husband and their children as well as her unending optimism. After an initial emotional reaction, I called her husband to convey my condolences and provide whatever support I could, given the circumstances. We spoke for some time and he kindly allowed me to dedicate this post to her.
Charlotte, this one is for you. My faith teaches me that we don’t know what happens when we pass, but we can live on in the hearts and memories of those who remain with us. I can think of no one who better epitomizes this message. Your life and example of never-ending optimism taught me so much, made me a better physician, and will continue to serve others whom I treat in the future when the world seems dark. I’ll end with one of your favorite sayings: “You don’t have to move mountains. Simply fall in love with life. Be a tornado of happiness, gratitude, and acceptance. You will change the world just by being a warm, kind-hearted human being.” Charlotte, you have done just that.