This Mother of 4’s Unbelievable Comeback From Years Of Chronic Pain

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My story includes many highs and lows, with no shortage of adversity along the way. But I’m glad to say that, thus far, it has a happy ending.

I’ll start back in 2006. That’s when, after several years of working as a school teacher and home daycare provider, I went back to school to pursue nursing.

While completing my coursework part-time, I got a job as a nursing assistant. From the start, I felt welcomed as an important part of the team. My passion for nursing blossomed as I worked caring for patients in a fast-paced, surgical setting. And that signalled to me that I was moving in the right direction career-wise.

My body, however, began telling me otherwise.

An old injury flares up…and never dies down

Just a couple months into the new job, my knee started to trouble me. I’d severely injured it at age 16 in a downhill skiing accident. In the years following, I’d needed multiple surgeries and extensive rehab. But since then, the troubles were minor.

I decided to consult with an orthopaedic surgeon at work about my situation. I’d come to see his skilled, compassionate care firsthand and was eager to give his advice a try. At his recommendation, I got fitted for a knee brace, started more physical therapy (PT) and tried injections to help ease the increasing pain. Unfortunately, though, those approaches weren’t as effective as hoped, and work became more and more difficult.

Image: Colleen Crownhart was an active skier

Cynthia Crownhart was an active skier as a teenager until she severely injured her knee on the slopes.

Subsequent consults determined my knee needed to be replaced. That meant another major surgery. And it meant more rehab. But what was worse was that it also meant I’d be out of work and school. Thankfully, I would be eligible for disability benefits. And my supervisors assured me my job would be there when I was ready to come back.

After surgery, the initial recovery went well for me. In a little over three months, I regained enough strength and flexibility to return to work part-time. But the medical bills forced me to put my schooling on hold. This was a huge disappointment as it felt like my dream of becoming an RN was being snuffed out.

My journey with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome begins

I was, though, so grateful and relieved to be working some hours again each week. I’d really missed seeing my colleagues during those months that I was away. And I’d very much missed working with patients, too. But it wasn’t long before my pain returned with a vengeance. One day, in the midst of my work transporting patients in wheelchairs and beds, I suddenly felt new and even more intense throbbing in my knee than what I’d experienced before.

Image: Colleen was out of work for three months as she recovered

Cynthia was out of work for three months as she recovered from reconstructive knee surgery.

Fortunately, my doctor happened to be in the clinic that day. He worked on the floor just below where I was stationed (what a great perk!), so I went down to see him. He ran a series of tests but found no obvious cause for the pain I was experiencing. That was a huge relief to some extent – but fear of the unknown also scared me.

I was referred to a local pain management team – many of whom I’d actually worked alongside. I’d known these providers to be excellent colleagues. And, as their patient, I was also treated with top-notch, respectful care from the get-go.

I saw an array of specialists – from a neurologist and plastic surgeon to mental health professionals and physical therapists. I was just starting on this relentless journey with what we now know to be “Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.” And each and everyone worked arduously to care for me. They gave me hope even as it became harder and harder to perform my job duties and live an active lifestyle. With their support, I moved from adamantly denying my debilitating condition to reluctantly accepting and learning to live with it.

Despite my care team’s tireless efforts to try different procedures and therapies with me, my ability to function at work and home declined greatly. Major depression was setting in. And I was experiencing bad side effects as my body seemed to reject each new medication I would try.

In August 2011, I was forced to end my work at the surgery centre. This was devastating. The reality that I would not be able to attain my dream of nursing hit hard. And simultaneously, I became divorced. Without a job and without a spouse, my future financial situation felt nothing short of dire – and I was terrified.

Highs, lows and a lot of determination

Even with these seemingly formidable new hurdles, my supervisors and the HR department stood by me. They helped me stay on as an employee with disability benefits. And, determined to not give up, I began researching what other help was out there.

My pain physician gave me a referral to the “Chronic Pain Rehab Program”. In this residential program, I learned ways to manage my condition. It would take time and diligent effort, this program showed me, but I could begin to function better physically and mentally – and even return to work.

Image: Colleen with her four children

Cynthia with her four children

When the program wrapped up, I decided to again pursue my education. I had learned and accepted that I needed a role where I would not have to be on my feet for long periods of time. So when I enrolled in college, I transitioned from my nursing path to one of becoming an administrative assistant. My passion for health care was still strong, though. And because I wanted to apply that passion to my new path, I went through training to become certified as a Health Unit Coordinator.

Just over a year from when I had to say goodbye to my job, I was once again able to return to active work. I was rehired in the Labor and Delivery unit at another hospital in October 2012. They even reimbursed for my education costs! What a huge benefit!

In my time away, I’d had a spinal cord stimulator implanted to help better manage my knee pain. But once again, not too long into my new role, I had yet another new problem develop. This time, I began feeling pain in my spine.

While the location of this new pain was different, the impact was the same. The pain grew so strong that I started having to miss shifts at work again. And that, of course, worsened my depression even more. In an effort to find balance, I cut back my hours significantly. But by the end of my first year in the Labor and Delivery unit, I had to resign altogether.

At this point, I was filled with overwhelming sadness and regret. I was in a state of unbearable pain almost daily, and I felt absolutely hopeless. Shortly after, while at home, I nearly ended my life with an overdose of pain medications.

Then came more hospital stays and agreeing to try one more major surgery. It would be extremely risky. But it was my best option for correcting the degeneration that had occurred in my spine. I was also hopeful that it would give me some much-needed pain relief. Indeed, I came through. And after more hard work and intense therapy, I regained function.

To top it all off, I was diagnosed with spine tumour and my neck hurt all the time

Rest, pain medications and chiropractic treatments couldn’t relieve the I felt in my neck and all over my body. I had always had neck problems, but this time it was severe.

After a visit to my doctor, followed by X-rays, I was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer that had spread to my spine. That was the source of my neck pain, really the only symptom of my lung cancer.

My neck hurt so badly that I cut off all of my long hair Just brushing it or flipping it out of my face became too much!

“Spine tumours can cause disabling pain, injury to nerves or the spinal cord, and ultimately paralysis if they’re not treated early,” says Dr Angelov, Head of the Section of Spine Tumors.

Typical treatments include surgery, conventional radiation therapy over days or weeks, and chemotherapy. Some of these options are painful, require significant recovery time or come with unwanted side effects.

My tumour was very close to my spinal cord, but Dr Angelov said she was confident she could shut it down without any of the potential complications of traditional surgery. Instead of multiple operations and overnight hospital stays, it was a one-shot treatment. I never knew such a thing existed!

M neck pain subsided gradually, and my cut hair has nearly grown back to waist-length.

I can sit here pain-free — or chase after my son — or travel to watch my youngest daughter play softball. I can’t say enough good things about my recovery. My neck used to hurt so badly that I could barely dress. Now I can hardly remember what that felt like.

Learning to not just live with my pain condition, but rise above and thrive

Fast forward 12 years, I am happy to report that, through all of these devastating and life-changing experiences, I’m alive.

I was unemployed for four years amidst my lowest lows – and there were times when I didn’t think I would survive financially. I relied entirely on Social Security disability and the generosity of family and friends. Now, though, I’m taking steps to reenter the workforce in some capacity. And I’m doing so thanks to the support of the many doctors, therapists and others who have walked beside me on this incredible journey.

Image: Colleen, middle, with her mom and stepfather

Cynthia, middle, with her mom and stepfather

Through everything, I’ve met others on journeys very similar to mine. And despite my own ups, downs, twist and turns, I can honestly say that my quality of life has been much greater than many. I believe wholeheartedly that this is due mostly to the care and support I’ve received from the pain management team. Time after time they have delivered on giving me high-quality, advanced treatments. And they’ve always done so with much compassion. Every time I have a chance, I recommend their services to others who are struggling.

My story continues as a work in progress. I’m still challenged with recurring pain flares, poor mental health and fear of failure. But I’m determined to press on and overcome. I’m slowly but surely learning how to not just “live with” all the conditions I have, but to rise above them and thrive. I have goals of writing and speaking about my experiences to aid others who are on similar paths. I want to share how I’ve benefited from “alternative therapies” that supplement medical treatments. And if ever possible, I’d like to even teach tai chi, yoga and other mind-body therapies.

I’m so grateful for the support I’ve received along the way. I really can’t thank the people of all the health centres I was engaged with enough. Their devoted efforts have given outstanding care to not only me but to countless other people in this community and beyond! I’ve been so fortunate to be helped so generously by them. And if I can help even just one person to also get their care and support, I will be most joyful.

Thank you for reading my story!

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