Paul O' Malley, a resident of Redford, Michigan, has struggled with back pain for almost two decades. BackerNation had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. O' Malley, gaining some insight on his personal struggles and triumphs while being a chronic back pain sufferer on the road to recovery. This is his story.
Q: What caused your chronic back pain?
A: I got into an awful car accident about 20 years ago. Luckily, I was able to get surgery to correct my broken back (L1S5). The doctor initially said since my back was broken he couldn’t necessarily fix it; he could only do a procedure to alleviate the pain, which was a success. After my recovery was “over,” or so I thought, when I was finally feeling normal, I started doing the things I did before the accident. I remember being on top of the roof fixing some wiring when a large 4-by-4 piece of tin started to fall off the roof. It happened so quickly. I knew I shouldn't have been up there, but I was feeling better so I did it anyway. My girlfriend, Paula (Yes, you heard right. People always laugh at the similarity of our names, Paul and Paula.) was directly underneath the pipe. It was instinctive. I saw the pipe dropping fast; knew if I didn’t act right away it could possibly harm her. So I did the only thing I could think of — I jumped, riding the pipe down to the ground. I knew it was either Paula’s life or my back. I chose Paula’s life. I remember laying on the ground, not being able to move asking Paula to get me a pillow since I knew I’d be here a while. I was in so much pain yet so shocked that this was actually happening to me — again. She called 911 after bringing me the pillow I requested. It turns out, I messed everything up the doctor had previously stabilized. In addition to my L5S1 injury from the car accident, I was now suffering from three fused vertebrae in my neck along with Degenerated Disc Disease (DDD).
Q: How long have you been a patient with chronic back pain?
A: I’ve been a patient of chronic back pain for what seems like forever. It started winter of 1999.
Q: How has pain impacted your life?
A: I think the question should be how has pain not impacted my life. Everything is different. It was a rough transition. The things I did before with such ease, I can't do anymore. I like to view myself as pretty adaptable. I try to live my life through a saying, “Adapt and Overcome,” but honestly, some days are harder than others.
Q: Can you run through an example of your normal day?
A: I am currently on long-term disability, which wasn’t easy to get. There were so many hoops I had to jump through in order to prove I literally couldn’t work because of the back injuries I sustained. After about a year of back and forth, I was finally awarded the disability I so needed. A normal day for me is pretty boring, but I get by the best that I can. I am currently prescribed a mild painkiller, which I take as needed. My insurance doesn’t cover the stronger drugs, but what I have works when I really need it to. I have a standing appointment with a chiropractor every two weeks. He massages my back and spine allowing oxygen to flow in the middle of my spine and disc. His movement adds moisture and life allowing me to be a little more flexible than I would be without. Besides the chiropractor, I also see the disability doctors a few times a month. Besides my doctor appointments, I am pretty much home. I’ve gotten more content with how I live my life since this has to be my new normal. Some days I get bored while others I’m just thankful I am alive. I put on my big boy pants, deal with the pain and live my life as best as possible. Every day after lunch I have an exercise routine that helps loosen up the muscles and nerves in my back/spine. I learned them from physical therapy. I alleviate the piercing pain by doing those techniques along with some stretching. After that, I normally just relax and watch television until Paula comes home from work and then we eat dinner. I will say sleep is the hardest. It seems like no matter what position I lay, I hurt. Luckily, I bought myself a lumbar support pillow that eases the tension, making it a little nicer to fall and stay asleep. I wake up the next morning and do it all again.
Q: How much of your day is impacted by pain?
A: Not to be a Debby Downer, however, most of my day is harshly impacted by pain. With the help of my medical team and the exercises I learned along the way, I do the best I can to live a relatively normal life, but what is normal anyway? The life altering events that caused my back issues cannot stop me from living. Yes, I had to change my perception of how I was going to live my life, but we all have to right? You cannot stop living just because something bad happened to you. I try to hang on to what I have left like if this is what I have to do, I’m going do it.
Q: Can you describe what your body feels like?
A: You know when you wake up from a good night’s sleep and you feel well rested, ready to start the day? Well, that’s something I miss. From the moment I wake up until I finally fall asleep, I am in pain. It’s like that feeling when you want to crack your knuckles but cannot. That’s how my entire back and spine feels all the way up to my neck and sometimes down my leg.
Q: What is your current relationship status and how does pain affect your relationship?
A: I am in a committed relationship with long-time girlfriend, Paula. We've been through it all. She was there from the start and remains a constant supporter and advocate. We cannot adventure and travel like we used to, but she's patient with me. My pain really doesn't effect our relationship.
Q: What do you think needs to be done in order for there to be a better understanding of chronic pain patients?
A: Awareness is key. If more people were aware of all the challenges we face as chronic back pain sufferers, I think it would create empathy that is so lacking in our community. I'm really excited that BackerNation exists because its mission is essentially bringing awareness to just that.
Q: Do you find there is support for individuals living with chronic pain?
A: To be honest, it can be difficult. I think you surely have to go out of your way in order to find the tools to fully recover, not only for your physical symptoms but your mind as well. It’s not as if everyone knows what I’m going through on a daily basis so you kind of have to actively seek help. And, some people are just in so much pain the thought of doing anything is nauseating, which then continues the vicious cycle of nothingness. As for me especially, I’ve been lucky to have great friends and family who constantly are checking up on me, asking to take me to my doctor’s appointments and just overall there for my general well-being. Some people aren’t that lucky.
Q: Do you feel your medical practitioners understand what it is like to live constantly with chronic pain?
A: I was fortunate enough to get one of the best doctors in Charleston, West Virginia, my home where the two accidents took place and where I lived for 26 years prior to relocating to Michigan. Doctor John H. Schmidt III, was open and honest with me for the entire process. After I fell off the roof, he told me that surgery was too dangerous because the risks trumped the benefits, paralysis being the major factor. So we worked together in order to find the treatment that would work best for me.
Q: What treatments have you tried to alleviate the pain?
A: If it exists, I have tried it. From physical therapy, exercise and stretching to drugs, chiropractors, and acupuncture. I asked my doctor what the best thing I could do for my back would be. His response still makes me laugh. He said to work my abs because my “flabs” were putting excess weight, essentially placing more strain on my lower lumbar causing more pain. He explained that if you want to have a strong back, you need to have a strong core. He recommended working on that area would not only help my overall health but would relieve some of the pressure aggravating my back pain. He also said light walking and/or jogging could be beneficial if I was up for it. I consider running to be a punishment. Every now and then Paula makes me go on a neighborhood walk with her.
Q: Which treatment is most effective for you?
A: I would say a combination of visiting the chiropractor every two weeks, taking the minor pain pills as needed along with my exercises. My go-to moves to keep my body as flexible as possible include pelvic thrusts, knee pull-ups, alternating knees as well as sliding hips back and forth, which allows my spine to essentially balance out. One of my number one issues is alignment. Like when your car’s alignment is off, it won’t stay straight. In order to keep my spine aligned correctly, I need that bi-weekly appointment alongside my exercises in order to feel good. I want to feel good so they are now a basic life necessity, and I’m okay with that.
Q: What is a common misconception about chronic pain sufferers and is there a pet peeve you have that people say to you about your pain that stands out and/or really bothers you? Example: type one diabetics may get annoyed when people tell them they can't eat that when in reality they can eat whatever they want. They just have to bolus properly, which means give yourself insulin to correct any sugary foods. Or, because people may not be able to physically see your pain, some may say that there is no pain.
A: Because people can’t physically see my pain, they generally tend to not believe the great extent of my pain. I wish people would trust others more and have more empathy for the fact that I am literally in constant pain and cannot work. Some may think I am taking the easy way out by being on disability when in reality, this is my only option to make ends meet.
Q: Do you feel isolated as a chronic pain sufferer?
A: To be honest, I do not. All of my doctors at Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC) were very professional and helpful. My long-term care doctors here in Michigan are the same. I never felt alone. I don’t feel alone now, luckily. I see how people do, though. It’s easy to feel hopeless. I like to think of myself as a very resilient person; someone who bounces back from an adversary and this was just another challenge. Life isn’t over. I just took the wrong exit and landed on the hard road with gravel, which is not as smooth as the highway, but eventually, the pathway evens out. Yes, I have limitations that I never had before, but I am still driving.
Q: Do you ever feel stigmatized with the diagnosis of chronic pain?
A: I learned from my family that we can overcome whatever. My dad was an escaped POW from WWII with nine kids while essentially being a cripple the entire second half of his life from getting injured in the line of duty. I thought, if he could get through life not just surviving, but thriving, we really can do anything.
Q: How has chronic pain impacted your psychological health?
A: Before my accidents, I didn’t take my health or mental health too seriously. So ironically after everything happened, it forced me to take my life seriously and get my act together not only physically, but mentally too. They really go hand in hand. Kind of like the game Jenga — when one falls, they all fall. I needed to learn how to get that solid foundation in order to maintain a healthy mind and body.
Q: How has chronic pain impacted your social life?
A: When the doctor said that he couldn’t operate, I believed I would never be able to do anything fun again. “There goes the good times,” I thought. I wouldn’t say it made me depressed because honestly, it made me want to take back the control more so than ever, but I can truthfully say that I am now content with how I live my life. Yes, I don’t go out drinking or partying anymore, but who does at my age anyway? Us chronic pain sufferers still know how to eat, so I really enjoy dinner gatherings with close friends and family.
Q: How has chronic pain impacted your financial/current working situation?
A: I am finally in a place where I actually own my house. It took a very long time to get here, but I am finally seeing the fruit of my labor as they say. The entire disability process was not fun and can be very lengthy. I had to jump through so many hoops. At first, getting the actual hearing date for the judge to decide if I even qualified took forever. My doctor testified on my behalf to the judge that I literally could not work. He made notoriety, explaining the risk benefits prohibited him from operating and would cause more harm than help. “Paul is disabled; he cannot work.” It's funny because I actually enjoy working. I love doing things my hands and keeping busy so to not work actually made me madder than anything else. Based on my impeccable work history, he understood that if I could work, I would be working. With that, he granted me the disability I was requesting and very much needed. Before you get disability, it’s like you have one foot in the grave. So to answer your question, yes, it has dramatically impacted my financial state and employment status.
Q: Do you feel that people in your life understand what it is like to live with chronic pain?
A: In my case, yes. I come from a large in-your-face Irish family so boundaries aren’t a thing we understand.
Q: What would you like others to know about chronic pain?
A: If someone says they are in pain, believe them.
Q: What have you learned about yourself as an individual that deals with pain on a daily basis?
A: I’ve learned to listen to my medical team and do whatever they tell me. It’s not only about changing your mind and accepting reality, but it’s about changing your life. You can’t run half of a 26-mile race and say you won. You actually have to do the work in order to achieve your goals. It’s easy to fall into depression since the quality of your life has changed, but just learn to take slower, more direct steps. I’m not going to be the man I thought I was, but I am grateful to be a living breathing person. It’s all about the little things.
Paul O' Malley is a loving father, brother, son and so much more. He continues to seek holistic treatments, exercises daily and takes medication as needed in order to live his best life while being in chronic back pain. He is truly an inspiration to us all.