Picture of Peggy CummingPeggy Cumming, is a wife, mother, grandmother of 6, sister, niece, cousin and friend, as well as a teacher – retired after 34 years in the classroom – and an athlete.  She is now recovering from thoracic surgery.

Just four letters, one syllable.

“When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking, and says its own name”. Grade One phonics – remember?

Used casually, we say, “Feeling no pain,” and, “No pain, no gain.” Or, “He’s a pain in the neck.”

It’s a simple word; we use it a lot.

I thought I knew about pain. I’ve given birth; I’ve rehabilitated a broken leg. I’d read the booklet, Pain Management after Surgery, put out by The Ottawa Hospital. I was ready, wasn’t I?

The first day after my surgery, barely conscious and experiencing major confusion, around me nurses were hovering, and asking, “On a scale of 1 – 10, how is your pain?”
Really?? Just minutes out of anaesthetic, focusing on breathing and being alive, I was expected to think and make decisions too? Luckily, I could answer, “Zero”.
“Good,” they said, “Your epidural is working.”
It was true: I couldn’t feel a thing. I was blissfully ignorant and didn’t care. My epidural was working.

On Day Two things changed, and pain was embroidered around the fringes of my consciousness. Nurses came to do the ‘Ice Check’ (a bag of ice placed at various positions on my back; Is this cold? This? This? The expected answer, depending on the placement of the bag, should be, “Cold, cold, not cold.” “Not cold” for the area blocked from pain.).
On Day Two, my answer was, “Cold. Cold. Cold”, which meant that I could feel everything. As the fingers of pain crept further and further into my back, and the pain management team was called in to see me, I grew into an identity called Pain. Every part of my physical, emotional and rational being was just pain.

It is difficult to write about pain. It is something to experience, not describe. The experience was totally new to me, dissimilar to the pain of childbirth, which brings joy when the pain is over. This pain went on and off for a week, with every small adjustment of my body to get comfortable or reach for something. Every small move, so familiar that I gave it no thought, would bring the pain threshold shooting to a ten. I quickly learned not to move until I had thought through which muscles would be involved.

The muscles and nerves in my back had been cut right through to the ribs. We use back muscles for every move, and when I tried to do these basic moves, the muscles were confused. I imagine that the muscles and nerves were speeding toward each other, seeking to form a strong unit, and instead, they came crashing to a halt at a 7” Grand Canyon of a roadblock, my incision. The backlash of this crash was the pain, running up and down my back, to the muscles that could not complete their job.

There was small joy in the one move that I could do without pain; I could sit straight up in bed! Thanks to years of swimming, weight training, yoga, and fitness classes at the Y, I could isolate my abs and sit straight up in bed, without pain. Once I got there, however, and tried to move something else, the pain came searing back.

Reflecting on it now from a distance and disconnection, it was a week in a blur: pain, sleep, and much appreciated visitors. When awake, and in pain, I was receiving help; nurses, doctors, pain management specialists were all trying to reduce the pain; IVs, epidural, painkillers by mouth, I had it all. I’m grateful for the emotional support from all these teams, and I know they were deeply involved.

Now at home, and three weeks away from the surgery, I am getting better each day. Less medication, less pain, more mobility, shorter naps. From here, I only look forward, to full health and fully participating in my life again. One day at a time – I’m getting there.

Peggy has her own photoblog, the F-stops here, where she posts a photograph every day.