When I decided to leave Mexico in 2011, there was only one deciding factor: Chronic severe complications from my Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis which needed the more regular attention of my American rheumatologist. In fact in my semi-girl/semi-woman mind of a young professional, I planned to return to programming as usual soon: Back in tip-top shape to conquer the Mexican scene of bilingual journalism within 3 to 4 months.
Although the eight months prior to my departure had me hospitalized twice and made the local hospital into a bizarre type of my own personal “Cheers”, I must say that in Mexico I was blessed to be able to see medical professionals who treated me with respect, compassion, their time and human warmth. As my father commented, it was almost being at the hospital he was born at: run by nuns in the 1950s in a small US rural town. Not big on technology but large on the human aspect of the organization.
In Mexico, when I developed a flare that would not cease, my doctor with whom I developed complete trust, pulled favors to get me tramadol. Unfortunately, the expense of biologics on my Mexican salary was too enormous. To prevent further damage to my immunological system, I unfortunately needed to see a US rheumatologist.
However, when I returned, my former rheumatologist could not see me very often. I ended up, like many under and uninsured patients do, on the door step of urgent care or the emergency room.
Gone was the trust I had built with my doctor in Mexico. I had traded it in for a cycle of quarterly 30 minute visits to the rheumatologist, then relied the rest of the year on Integrative Pain Specialists, mega doses of steroids, trips to urgent care and at worst, hospitalizations to stabilize me. Meanwhile, the cartilage in my ankles and fingers began to crumble like crackers in a rusty tin jar. Forget about returning to Mexico, I wasn’t even returning to work or my own apartment.
By age 29, I was dependent on my family, friends, steroids and my quarterly mess of cycling through the system. I heard it all and from the least expected people: “Lazy”, “the age/gender group most likely to abuse”, “just try juicing or insert (yoga! Diet! Massage!)” and “stop being a child.” I have now also memorized the familiar patronizing lecture the pharmacy techs give my mother each and every time she tries to fill the occasional narcotic painkiller prescription.
However, through a series of good luck, hard work and incredible support, I have been able to return to work, school and independence despite the obstacles.
But it was not until a meeting at work last Friday that finally, after 25 years, I realized that the pain was not “in my head”. While the majority of my jovial, co-workers gently teased me about my admittedly horrible driving skills, a co-worker with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis realized this was due to my limited range of motion.
This co-worker quickly took me aside, held my hand and told me what I had always told myself: “I know exactly what you are thinking. You can ‘just power through this’ but you can’t. One day soon, you will hit the wall.”
My co-worker treated me with respect, compassion, and human warmth—something I had rarely felt from a non-family member or close friend since my return from Mexico. While Mexico certainly does not have access to the top care the US does, perhaps the US could take a cue from Mexico and better consider the human aspect of the patient.
Indeed my co-worker was right and broke through my two decade illusion: I cannot “just power through” the pain and neither should you. Pain is just a symptom of a larger, more severe issue at hand. It’s time we treat pain as the warning sign that it is.