Thursday, June 5, 2014

In Terms of Pain

There’s a weird thing about relativity that goes on after watching a loved one suffer and then die from cancer: pretty much no ailment really seems all that bad.

When I start to think that I don’t feel well, my thoughts immediately go to the look on my dad’s face when he was so sick, the confusion in his eyes when he asked over and over “Why am I not getting better?” and the desperation in his voice when we brought him home from the hospital for the last time and he asked me, “Are you sure we have enough medicine?  I feel certain that the emotional pain he was in and the stress he felt for so many reasons were worse than the physical pain towards the end; all of it was nothing short of torturous.

So these days when I think about something like pneumonia, I think: not that bad.  A bout of the flu?  You’ll get over it.  A migraine?  Take some medicine and quit your whining.  Throw your back out?  Give it a couple of days and it’ll be like it never happened.  Common cold?  Jesus, get ahold of yourself you freaking wimp.  These are not things I say to other people (not out loud, at least), but I definitely say them to myself, just one more way that my perspective has changed.

I remember both times my dad was in the hospital and the staff seemed to be constantly asking him to rate his pain. Every time he was asked, he was shown a little visual guide; it seemed to annoy him much more than it helped him.  He always did what I came to think of as "white coating" his response (sugar-coating for the white coats); the number that he gave and that was recorded in his medical chart was always lower than it actually seemed to be to those of us who spent a lot of time with him.  Many times Dad was very obviously in pain, grimacing and asking for a cold cloth to be placed on his head, and then when a health care worker walked into the room his demeanor shifted:  "How's it going, Doc?" or "I hope your shift ends soon - it seems like you've been here for days and I know you're tired!" he would say. Truth be told, sometimes it made me angry, not necessarily at him or at the staff member but just in general at the fact that he felt like he needed to pretend to feel better than he was actually feeling.

Several times I thought about following the nurse or whoever had asked him to rate his pain out into the hallway to ask them to put a footnote explanation alongside the number Dad had given, but for some reason I never actually did it.  What they didn't realize besides the fact that Dad tended to "round down" was that his natural pain tolerance was about 100 times that of most other people, the result of decades of enduring grueling athletic workouts.

I know it’s not a contest, and I know that pain is pain and sometimes it just helps to let out a moan or a cuss word in complaint of the discomfort that’s ailing a person.  But, like pretty much everything else in life, pain is linked to perspective.  I WISH I STILL THOUGHT A HANGNAIL or even a raging case of poison ivy was worthy of whining.

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