You are More than Your Pain: Q&A with Jeffrey Bernstein — a Herniated Disc Gladiator
Jeffrey Bernstein, an upstate New York native, and recent Orlando, Florida, resident, spends his days fighting for his clients in and out of court as a health care attorney for over four decades. While battling the judges and other lawyers, he also defends himself – doing the best he can with what he has while trying to live as pain-free as possible. Due to a football accident, Bernstein injured his spine resulting in two herniated discs eventually leading to multiple severe spinal surgeries. This is his story.
Q: Before we get started, how about you introduce yourself?A: Hi, BackerNation. My name is Jeffrey. You can call me Jeff. I'm a healthcare attorney, golf lover and family man who lives right outside of Disney World — although I rarely get to go. But you know, I’m alive, making the best with what I’ve got and wouldn’t be here without my family. They even put up with me through all the craziness life has to offer us. It really starts and ends with them.
Q: What type of chronic back pain do you suffer from?A: Let me explain a little anatomy, and then I’ll quickly answer your question.
The spine is comprised of a sequence of joined bones – your vertebrae, which surround the spinal cord. Its main purpose is to protect you from injury. Nerves essentially fork off from the spinal cord and trek throughout the rest your body. This permits communication between the brain and the body. The brain then sends messages to the spinal cord and out through the nerves to make the muscles move and essentially tells your brain that you are in pain or too hot, etc.
A disc and two small joints connect the vertebrae. The disc, which is made up of strong connective tissues, holds the vertebra in place acting as a cushion between each vertebra. The disc and facet joints allow you to bend and rotate your neck and back.
As you age, the center of the disc can start to drop water content, which makes the disc less effective as a cushion. As a disc weakens, the outer layer can also tear turning your working disc into a herniated one. The herniated disc may press on your nerves causing pain among other things.
It’s the lawyer in me that wanted to explain everything, but to answer your question I have two herniated discs in my neck and back.
Q: How long have you been a chronic back pain patient?A: It's partly funny because I don't remember not being in pain. We have to keep our humor somehow, but if I had to give an estimated amount, roughly 55 years. I'm now almost 70, believe it or not, and it all started when I was about around 17 years old.
Q: Do you suffer from any other health conditions that may contribute to your chronic back pain?A: What isn’t wrong with me? It seems that as I age, every morning I wake up with something new, but I’m still kicking. I’m a smoker, and if I were to tell you I plan on quitting that would be a lie. It’s something I just can’t seem to let go of. I really need it to cut the edge on day-to-day stress, but everyone has that something, right? I also have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and am actually a pre-diabetic, which probably doesn’t help or lessen my chronic back pain.
Q: Where did your herniated disc diagnosis come from?A: The herniated discs in my back and neck originally came from a football accident back in late high school that I never took care of. Ironically though, all of the possible causes of a herniated disc — aging, trauma, stress, poor diet, overweight, tobacco use and other genetics — are pretty much me. I am pretty sure that I’m guilty of all of them so to point the exact reason may be easier said than done. My golf game also heightened all of it because of my bad posture and playing when I shouldn’t. Like I said, I love golf and play as much as I possibly can, but having a bad neck and back, I don't get to play as much as I'd like too these days.
Q: Have you ever had surgery? If so, what was it like?A: I actually had a couple back surgeries because the first one didn't go as planned. My back still hurt and started to swell so bad that the surgeon went back in and luckily corrected everything.
Surgery is sort of a last resort type of treatment, but honestly right before I had my first and second laminectomy, I was at my worst pain levels. For any BackerNation patients who don’t know what that means, I’ll briefly explain the surgery if that’s all right? (Macey: I advised Jeffrey it was certainly all right)
Laminectomy is a surgery that adds space by removing the lamina, which is the back part of the vertebra that covers your spinal canal. Some people refer to it as decompression surgery – a laminectomy enlarged my spinal canal to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or nerves allowing me to bend, walk and pick things up without dying.
At that time, I was living with my ex-wife right outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in a suburb of South Jersey. I was working at my favorite job I’ve had thus far in my career, and I remember not being able to go into work. I was in so much pain that I literally couldn’t even get out of bed. My ex-wife had to do everything for me. I felt helpless and hopeless like I would never get better. I remember meeting with my main doctor and specialist and he told me all other treatments failed and surgery was the only way to relieve the pain. I hated the idea of being opened up and being bed written for even longer, but if it was the only way to get better, who was I to say no? The only problem was the surgeon made me stop smoking and on top of the pain, I was so irritable. Luckily, they gave me the patch, but honestly, I really needed a real cigarette.
I had to do a few diagnostic imaging tests including X-ray and MRIs prior to the official surgery. I even had to stop taking ibuprofen per orders from my surgeon. I remember having this awful headache a few days before and couldn’t do anything about it. I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink a day before, which wasn’t too bad. Honestly, though, it was the anxiety leading to the surgery that was worse than anything else. They knock you out and do their thing and you wake up drugged out and ready to recover.
Q: Now that we know you have undergone surgery, how was the recovery from that herniated disc surgery? Does anything in particular stick out – good or bad?A: I will say that the surgery was pretty much a success. Besides a small infection on the incision site, I had no severe problems. I had others though. I really hate to not be positive, but recovering from surgery was pretty awful. I literally sat in bed for four months. I was already on a leave of absence from work but thought I’d be back way before I did — so it was very frustrating. My wife and caretaker at the time didn’t work but took a part-time job just to get away from me (Jeffrey laughed again). I was pretty depressed for a while. I mean after looking at the same painting on my bedroom wall all day every day for like eight months, who wouldn’t go crazy? Luckily, I snuck in a few cigarettes when my ex left for work. I hate to even promote smoking and I am not by any means, but those cigarettes were the only thing that helped take the edge off. I’m really not a pill person so I was doing my best to not rely on the drugs. I did have to take some pain medication post surgery and did my best to not continue once my script ran out.
I even had to see a nutritionist because all my fast food favorites were not good for my or anyone’s recovery. People, eat healthily. It will catch up to you. I always say to my daughters, 'Do what I say and not what I do.'
Q: What chronic back pain symptoms do you feel on a daily basis?A: Although the back surgery was a success, I feel as if nothing ever really goes away. It’s really hard for me to get out of bed. I get shooting pains in my leg, which sometimes turn to numbness. I feel weak. I can’t lift or hold things like I used to and when I try, I have to stop and have someone help. It really limits me, but anything in life worth fighting for is not easy – life included. I live in a townhouse, so my neighbors can hear me if I yell loud enough. I remember one time I was doing my laundry and had put it off for a few weeks. My hamper so heavy, I tried to lift and almost fell over. I remember screaming and my next-door neighbor, whom I had given a key to for this exact reason, comes running in, picks up the [laundry] hamper, and then did my laundry for me. If it wasn’t for good people like that, I don’t know what I’d do day-to-day.
Q: What is your current employment status and how does your chronic back pain affect your ability to work?A: I am an attorney, but that doesn't mean I've always been practicing. In the peak of my chronic low back and neck pain, I literally couldn't move. I took a leave of absence for a few months and had to prolong it in order to recover from surgery. Luckily, I am back practicing at a smaller law firm in Florida and try to stay off my feet as much as possible. These days my clients want to stay out of court so I spend the days at the office, sitting at my desk making phone calls and drafting documents. I put in all the hard work back in the day so luckily now it doesn’t affect my ability to help my clients.
Q: Have you ever felt stigmatized by your coworkers as a chronic back pain patient?A: Depending on which Jeff you are talking to, I would have a different answer. Back in the day Jeff, when I was a senior partner at this pretty large firm in Philly, I took that leave, it was like the other lawyers were ravaging for my office and position. I felt like I had to do more, but physically couldn’t. I came to a breaking point and just had to let go. It was really hard to do, but my body and health were more important. Anyone reading this, understand that health comes before anything else. If you don’t have your health, you have nothing.
They loved the fact that I was essentially weak because they thought they would one-up me since I wasn’t putting in the work I used to. You really have to have enough faith in the world that everything will work out. You have to have enough faith in yourself that you can get through it and you will. Even if I wasn’t going to have the same office, I’m still the same attorney and I shouldn’t be viewed any differently just because I am a chronic back pain patient.
The owner of the firm was actually one of my oldest friends so he had my back and kept my office for me under protest from the others. Essentially, you have to say eff off to everyone else and do what you have to do to be your best self.
Now, I’m older and people expect less from me, but I always bring my A game and my coworkers now have a high respect for me knowing I didn’t stop going after my dream of being an attorney even though I had a few setbacks. If anyone works and they get stigmatized, you should consider telling your supervisor because your boss wouldn’t keep you on if they felt you couldn’t do it. Even if you can’t do it, don’t ever let anyone make you feel less. Everything happens for a reason and I firmly believe that what goes around, comes around.
Q: Are you open with your clients and senior partners about your chronic back pain?A: Honestly, I never was. It took me a while to get in this headspace. Younger Jeff was not open by any means. I thought I had to be this tough guy all the time like I had to say yes to everything that was offered to me. I did things that I shouldn’t even though I was in pain, which made my herniated disc pain worse. I thought they would judge me or think less, but now… I am completely open and honest. Normally, my clients and other coworkers also have some form of chronic back pain and we bond over it. I’ve even gotten phone calls from my clients on weekends asking me for advice on how to do certain things. Life is really full circle. You just have to wake up and get there.
Q: How do you not let all of this affect you mentally?A: It’s absolutely hard. If anyone tells you otherwise, they are most likely lying. I always say that winners are not people who never fail, but people who never quit. Although I didn’t come up with that saying, it's something I try to live by. If you keep going eventually your head catches up with your brain and you understand that you cannot let someone steal your joy, which then allows you to be more comfortable in your skin and you eventually will not allow others to affect how you feel. I actually saw a therapist for a few years and I would recommend that to anyone struggling.
Q: Do you find that any courtroom officials hold anything against you for having chronic back pain as relating to trying your case?A: The legal profession attracts countless personalities, most of which are necessary to continue the evolution of the law. There are personality traits that can unnecessarily complicate a case, but I will say throughout my entire legal career, any sort of courtroom official has never called me out. There are cases where a judge may not be the nicest or the most patient, but I have never seen a scenario where my chronic back pain affected the ruling of my case – thankfully. If I had, I would consider putting the judge in contempt for even the thought of denying my motion because I didn’t move as fast as a younger lawyer, but again that never happened. I wish I had some cool story to tell you, but I suppose this is a good thing. Most people are pretty understanding.
Q: I know you are a prestigious attorney, but BackerNation was wondering if you have you had any experience with disability? We hear it can be a grueling process.A: Luckily, I have not, but I’ve had several friends of mine with other chronic back conditions who had nowhere to turn. I remember one in particular who attempted to get disability. What you guys heard about the process is correct.
Back in the day, I remember that friend complaining about The Oswestry Disability Index (ODI). To be honest, I had to look up the definition because I haven’t thought of this in years. Basically, it’s a questionnaire used by doctors and specialists to quality disability for lower back pain patients. The scores are added up and then multiplied by two to obtain the index of 0 – 100. Zero is equated with no disability and 100 is the maximum disability possible. For some reason, the doctor didn't believe he was in the amount of pain he was claiming. My old friend was in true pain later learned to be sciatica, but whatever the reason he was denied disability time after time. After a year or two of back and forth, he found another medical specialist who took his case seriously and spoke to the judge who finally granted him disability.
Q: Does back pain affect your sleeping habits including your ability to fall and stay asleep?A: Insomnia runs in my family. I am no different. Sleep is always an act I’ve dreaded, but over the years, it’s kind of gotten worse. I admit I take a sleeping pill about an hour before I want to sleep. I start to get sleep, grab a fluffy pillow, place it in-between my legs and then sleep on alternating sides. Some doctors or specialists say that laying on your back is the best, but I find that I can’t actually fall asleep like that.
Although I hate pills, my sleeping meds are the only way I can fall asleep so anyone who takes them for anything else, I do understand why. To answer your question, yes, my back pain affects my ability to not only fall asleep but stay asleep as well. Around 4 or 5 a.m., I always wake up and take a melatonin to fall back asleep. It’s like I can feel the nerves in my spine moving around and it makes me wake. I sometimes start my day at that point but try to fall back asleep for another few hours.
Q: What actions or treatments do you take to minimize your chronic back pain?A: Physical Therapy (PT) is my go to. Like I said, I love golf and ironically a golf buddy of mine is a physical therapist. He made me go to his health club. He did a PT work out on me like he would for anyone else with a bad back and I will say, I never slept better than I did that day.
Because of that, I go there twice a week – sometimes three. Between PT, stretching in the mornings and evenings along with weekly massages, I get by pretty well. I will say that a massage can help relax your muscle tissue, leading to decreased nerve compression, increased joint space, and overall range of motion. This helps to reduce my pain, improved function and just relaxes me, leaving me ready for the weekend.
If I didn’t have surgery, I know that I wouldn’t be able to do as much as I do so I thank God for allowing that to go well. I still need to maintain my other treatments and therapy regimes because surgery doesn’t always take away the day-to-day pain. I look forward to my Friday massages tremendously. I get to leave work early, go to my two-hour appointment and then shoot golf balls with a few buddies.
My oldest daughter sometimes makes me meditate. Honestly, I would never do it alone, but when she forces me to. I always feel a little more relaxed afterward. See – it’s the little things, guys.
Q: Do you find that one works more so than another?A: I find that I need all of them in order to sleep well and enjoy myself. Physical therapy and the massage therapy helps to loosen my tightened muscles and nerves — everyone needs some relaxation. I would say multiple treatment or therapy options is the way to go. There may be one that works better for someone else, but for me, I need a little bit of everything.
Q: Is the medical community, specifically physicians you’ve encountered, prepared, willing and able to help treat your chronic back pain?A: Overall, I would say yes. There were times when I had to go out of my way to explain how much pain I was actually in to obtain the correct treatment and therapy regime for me, but in a general sense, most medical professionals are willing and able to help. If you find that yours isn’t, I suggest researching another doctor or medical specialist. This is their job and they should not only want to help but should be prepared to.
Q: What is your diet like? Do you find that what you eat can increase or decrease your chronic back pain levels?A: (Jeffrey laughed.) My favorite foods are literally any type of potatoes, burgers and McDonald's McChickens. I know I am not healthy by any means. I sometimes try, but other times, I just don’t care. I will say this. On the days where I eat Wendy’s for lunch and dinner (the days where maybe I don’t have time to cook), I feel sluggish and weaker than ever. That’s because eating carby foods literally can increase your chronic back pain from the inflammation in these fatty foods. You would think someone who knows this would make a change, but they just taste so good and at my age, it’s so hard to change. There are those days where my daughters force me to give them a food diary over the phone. Basically, I have to tell them everything I ate, which then forces me to pick a chicken salad instead of that McChicken, but somedays I splurge and let my cravings cave. If we all ate super healthy all the time, the burgers wouldn't be so savory. I do try to eat greens and proteins during the week and then go crazy on the weekends. It's all about balance though.
Q: Do you find that your chronic back pain affects your relationships with others – friends and family alike?A: For me, I have to say no. My people are there for me whether I walk, crawl or none of the above. Like I said, I am a family man. They have always had my back literally and figuratively, but I suppose not all families are like mine. The sad thing is over the years we’ve all relocated and live in different parts of the country. I’ve made some really close friends and neighbors who essentially take their place day-to-day and help me around the house or take me out to eat if I had a rather painful day.
Everyone needs that. Sometimes you just have to go see a movie and forget your troubles even for an hour or so. I wish that anyone suffering from chronic back pain has someone they can go too. It’s quality and not quantity.
Q: Are you currently in a relationship?A: I was married for 28 great years. Ever since that ended, I’ve had girlfriends here and there, but sadly nothing ever stuck. I don’t plan on ever getting remarried, but I am actively seeking a girlfriend. To be honest, I am on J-Date (a Jewish online dating service).
It would be really nice to have a partner in life – someone I can count on and go through this time together. I feel like I’ve changed as a person, inside and out, from my divorce and I would love to fix the mistakes I made with my ex to try to make my next one that much better. I am single and looking.
Q: Do you feel there is an awareness of chronic back pain throughout today’s society?A: I feel as if people need evidence in order to prove something as fact. Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but most people don’t believe you if they can’t see proof. Chronic back pain is no different. The problem is you can’t simply show someone the broken discs in your back. They only see the effects of that pain and can sometimes think you are exaggerating. I’ve seen it many times where people discount someone’s pain just because it’s invisible to the naked eye. That needs to change especially with the rising of mental illness. You can’t physically see someone's anxiety, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that’s real — again, back pain is no different. The idea of BackerNation, and how you guys are implementing awareness, education and actual tools to help, is tremendous. People need to understand that chronic back pain is not exaggerated and can actually cause mental illness, such as depression, making BackerNation essential.
Q: What advice can you provide to another Backer?A: I would tell you that you are stronger than this thing called chronic pain. If you want to do something, do it. If you feel shame or embarrassment because you can't do the things you used too, don't for a second think you are inferior. Don't let anyone else's thoughts or opinions of your pain or anything else for that matter get you down. My youngest daughter always tells me on my bad days, "In the end, everything will be OK. If it's not OK, it's not the end."
Q: Has chronic back pain changed the way you see yourself?A: Honestly, it’s made me a tougher person because of it. I always had a pretty good work ethic, but trying to battle everything while in back pain and seeing how it’s possible to get to the other side, really helped me see that man I really can do it.
I used to get down on myself if what I did wasn’t perfect. It's the perfectionist in me, but perfection is a flaw in itself because it's something that doesn't exist. I would essentially want to give up and throw in the towel just because I didn’t complete the action as I thought I would in my head. Over the years, I’ve come to learn and understand that in order to be successful, you don’t have to get everything right. You don’t even have to be good in order to be successful, but you just can't give up. You must take action whether that's standing up for yourself, asking for help or begging your doctor or specialist to take you seriously.
I've learned that people fight for themselves. Most people are pretty selfish so if you need something done, take some form of action since it will not appear out of thin air.
Only people who are willing to get their hands dirty and don’t give up are the ones who see the fruit of their labor. Maybe I’m not the high-class trial attorney I dreamed of being as a young boy, but I am still an attorney who helps people every day and with that, I am not only content but truly happy.
Q: Do you feel that recovery is possible? Can you live a great life while in chronic back pain?A: Mental pain is essentially in the eye of the beholder although it's 100 percent real. You decide whether you are going to be happy or sad. You just need the tools in order to do this. Recovery is 100 percent possible, again, with the right tools. You need to understand that sometimes being bored is a part of the entire healing process. You need to rest and stay in bed in order to eventually run and do other fun things. Remember, I had to stare at the same painting on my bedroom wall for literally month after month. I was not only annoyed but depressed. I finally understand that I needed that time of rest in order to get to where I am today.
Although you may have to adjust your idea of a great life, having a great life is so possible. Your only limit is yourself, so just do a little more every day and before you know it, you can reach your goal — big or small, it doesn't matter.
Not to bring up my daughters again, but I can't not. My youngest is a quote lover and true motivation for me. Both of my daughters are the reason I am still here and wake up every day. My youngest repeated this one quote in particular that sticks out.
'Sometimes the worst thing that happens to you, the thing you think you can’t survive; it’s the thing that makes you better than you used to be."
We just get so lost in our heads that the idea of being happy or enjoying life while in back pain seems almost impossible. Like the quote says, the worst thing that happens to you can actually turn you into someone even better than you ever imagined.
Q: Is there anything you want a fellow chronic back pain patient to understand?A: I can't say this enough: You are more than your pain. Your pain is real. Your feelings are real, but you can’t let that stop you from living your best life. It’s not easy, but with help from your medical team and support system, you can be just as happy as the next guy. One of the most frustrating things in this world is feeling something painful — physical or mental — and having another person tell you that you’re making it up. Don’t listen to the negativity. It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up.
Anyone suffering remembers this: "I'm not where I want to be, but I'm not where I used to be."
My advice would be to talk about your pain. When you talk about any secrets or disappointments that may stem from your chronic back pain symptoms or diagnosis, you take away its power and before you know it, your strolling with your best friend on the beach laughing, or in my case playing golf in sunny Florida. I also want to say thank you for thinking of me for this interview. If I can help just one person, I did my job.
BackerNation feels grateful that Bernstein was able to take time out of his day practicing law (and playing golf) to share his story. His dedication to not only his clients but for his recovery is truly remarkable. He helped us realize that sometimes you really can do it all. When there’s a will – there’s a way. Thank you, Jeffrey, truly.
BackerNation wants to provide you with the way as we try to bring awareness to what it’s really like living with chronic back pain. By subscribing to our community, you already won the war – now let’s battle up and prepare for the fight of our lives as we take down chronic back pain together!