LEARNING COMPASSION FROM PAIN AND LOVE
A LACK OF COMPASSION: FOUR INCIDENTS THAT CONTRIBUTED
Chronic pain is a beast, coloring every waking hour. Prior to my newfound familiarity with agony, I prided myself on having a fairly high tolerance for what others found unbearable. Four incidents contributed to my self-perceived, tough-as-nails resolve.
1. A SERIOUS CAR ACCIDENT
Back in the fifties, seatbelts in cars were unheard of, so my big sister and I frequently rode in the ‘wayback’ of Mom’s green station wagon. One memorable day, we were T-boned by another vehicle that ran a red light; I was immediately airborne, passing over the back seat, then the front seat, my body’s projection only stopped when my face hit the dashboard.
I was taken by ambulance to the emergency room. My front baby teeth (I was only three years old.) were crushed upward and needed to be surgically removed. I have been told that, never shedding a tear, I simply observed the nurse inserting a needle in my arm to sedate me. Apparently she hiccupped and the subdermal needle broke off. Horrified, she tried to distract me from what came next. Unfazed, I asked her to move over, saying, “I want to watch you get it out of there. I had a splinter once.”
2. A BROKEN JAW
When I was a teenager, my jaw was unfortunately broken following the surgical removal of my four wisdom teeth. Even so, I took narcotics for only two days, returning to high school with an ice pack in hand. No doubt, I pulled myself together to prove to my parents that I could still use the tickets I’d purchased to attend the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert that weekend.
3. A C-SECTION WITH ONLY PARTIAL SEDATION
My baby was due March 16th. However, six weeks prior to my due date, following ten hours of hard labor and three hours of pushing, an emergency C-Section was required due to a placenta accreta. As the scalpel penetrated my midline, my body jerked inches off the operating table. Rumor has it, I grabbed my husband by the throat.
It seems the epidural was effective on only one side of my belly, and because my baby boy was a preemie, my OB couldn’t risk sedating me further. Now that hurt, for a moment.
4. A PAINFUL SURGERY AND RECUPERATON
Two years later, I had a cervical fusion. Recuperation while my two-year-old son ran about was a challenge, yet my post-operative limitation was more frustrating than painful.
When others asked how I managed through each procedure and recovery, I was simply honest; I was grateful for skilled surgeons and medication when I needed it. When others told me their own medical experiences, I thought it sounded more like a horror show than reality. I secretly and arrogantly thought, “What a wimp.”
LEARNING COMPASSION FROM PAIN
A FALL FROM A CLIFF AND A GRUELING RESCUE
My lack of compassion was about to take a 180-degree turn. After plummeting off a twenty-five-foot cliff with my mule in Oaxaca, Mexico, I had multiple serious injuries including a bi-lateral fractured pelvis, a shattered sacrum, severe nerve damage, and a head injury.
Following a grueling rescue out of the jungle by the indigenous Indians, I spent five days in a rudimentary clinic in Tuxtepec. Three commercial airline flights then took me home to Maryland where I spent one more week in a trauma hospital.
My physician told me it would be two years before I would know how much pain I was destined to live with. Blinking, I thought, “I’ll be fine.” After a physical therapist at the hospital taught me how to lift my feet off the floor, I made it home.
BEDRIDDEN WITH UNBEARABLE PAIN FROM NERVE DAMAGE
Bedridden for six months while relying on others for my every need was almost too much to bear — that was until the pain increased as the nerves in my lower back began to regenerate. The pain was unbearable.
Nerve damage was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Without warning, several times an hour, fire raced up my spine to my neck. Then the back of my tongue would momentarily freeze. Just as suddenly, the red-hot coals radiated back down my spinal cord, searing my rectum and inner thighs. I gasped as my body twitched and I tried unsuccessfully to twist my torso in a futile attempt to stop the stinging and internal inferno.
Narcotics did little to alleviate those episodes. The doctor was right. Time would be my recovery indicator, not medical intervention. My one-year anniversary was so depressing. It was hard to fathom I had 365 more days until this torture would subside.
FEELING LESS THAN HUMAN
I felt less than human and personally robbed as I tried to return to work. Rather than caring for my family, they cared for me. There was no choice but to give up activities I loved like horseback riding, hiking, and golf.
If my jeans or slacks had a seam, I couldn’t wear them. The slightest graze of fabric against my skin at the base of my spine produced a nerve explosion. In public, my husband Jim always walked behind me as protection from an accidental bump from strangers.
My response to being touched in that area was similar to pithing a frog in a lab. Terribly embarrassed, I’d stop dead in my tracks, my arms springing outward — I’d reverberate until I could regain composure.
MINIMAL IMPROVEMENT AND RESENTMENT OF CHRONIC PAIN
As the years ticked by, my improvement was minimal. In fact, additional auto-immune conditions presented further complications. My limitations adversely affected my marriage. How often I had to bow out of social engagements! I dug my heels in as my family attempted to plan vacations — I knew my limitations despite the family cheerleading. The simplest chores like vacuuming caused me to backslide for days.
When others looked at me with sympathy, I just felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want my identity forever referenced to that fateful day in the jungle. Even though everyone was being incredibly kind, looks of compassion and the daily question, “Really, how are you?” became a reminder of something I resented — chronic pain. That growing resentment was about to change.
LEARNING COMPASSION FROM LOVE
SHE ENVIED ME?
A soft-spoken, elderly acquaintance in my Bible study sent me a card. Her handwriting was barely legible, likely from Parkinson’s Disease. “I’m not prone to envy, but I envy you.”
I had to read that sentence a few times before moving on. “So few of us will ever identify with the suffering Jesus endured on the cross at Calvary for all of mankind. You have a window into His sacrifice that I’ll never know. He must love you so.”
LEARNING COMPASSION: A COMPLETE CHANGE OF HEART
My heart, yes, my entire attitude, was altered that day. Every sting, every body ache, and all those hard days caused me to cling tighter to my Savior, putting me a step closer to the foot of the cross. My momentary pain was fleeting. The words became engraved on my heart, “He must love you so.”
My husband died an excruciatingly painful death due to pancreatic cancer. The day before he took his last breath, I leaned into him, sobbing uncontrollably and said, “Babe, I can’t bear to watch you suffer like this.” He whispered his final words through parched lips, “This is nothing compared to a crown of thorns.”
An encouragement: we can do this, one moment at a time. He must love us so.
Karen Rhea Newell
Author and Speaker
Karen is a keynote speaker. Her riveting storytelling is no less enthralling in her writings. The author of The Mule; An Unexpected Ride, Sick Kids and Those Who Love Them as well as magazine and web articles. A former leader with Community Bible Study, Karen directed women's ministries and couples' ministries with her husband, whom she accompanied on medical mission trips. karenrhea.com
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