Lois Roelofs, PhD, RN, is Professor Emerita of Nursing at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL, and the author of Caring Lessons: A Nursing Professor’s Journey of Faith and Self (2010, Deep River Books). She blogs about everything but her chronic pain at loisroelofs.com
Once upon a time…isn’t that the way all fairy tales start? In my former fairy-tale world, I lived the perfect life—teaching nursing, pursuing advanced degrees, working toward promotion and tenure, and flying off to out-of-state conferences. Along with racing toward an ever-expanding finish line, my husband and I raised two children and welcomed three grandchildren. Then, like Annie’s, my career fell off the track.
My fall began on a cold November night in 1997 with a 9:30 phone call from my gynecologist. Why was he calling so late? He broke the news: “Lois, I don’t believe it. This should not have happened. You’ve been active. You’ve taken your calcium. But this baseline Dexascan shows osteoporosis.”
I was forty-seven years old.
He referred me to a rheumatologist for follow-up. As she flexed my legs and poked around my knees and hips, she asked, “How long have you had fibrositis?”
“I don’t have it,” I spit out from my helpless position of lying flat on the cold steel and vinyl exam table. I knew fibrositis was an old term for fibromyalgia, and I knew its reputation of belonging to crocks, and I was NOT a crock. I was a nurse, after all, and I was not a hypochondriac.
I left the office determined not to have fibromyalgia. But then that year everything that could go wrong, did. Murphy’s Law. Within seventeen months, nine family members and my best friend suffered serious setbacks, from cancers to open heart surgery to spinal cord injury. I began dreading the ring of the phone. Just after I’d jokingly said I was going to leave the phone off the hook, it was our turn. After a call from his urologist, my husband, standing in a frozen state in our kitchen, announced, “I have cancer.”
Prostate. He was the eleventh among his brothers, cousins, and uncles to get it. We knew the drill.
Normally super energetic, my husband didn’t recover fully for almost a year after successful surgery. And, just when I was pretty confident that I’d be granted a semester’s sabbatical from teaching, I fell, kerplop, on our iced front steps one January morning in 2000 while getting in the Chicago Tribune. Of course, as a nurse, I wrapped my tender-to-the-touch and rapidly discoloring left arm in an elastic bandage and drove one-handed to teach a three-hour class. Two days later, with the pain increasing, and when I finally had the time, I drove to the ER. Alone. Just to make sure… When the resident told me my arm was broken, and I’d have to wait two days until it could be casted, I asked why.“You can’t be casted until two days after the break.” Something about the swelling needed to go down. Imagine the flush on my face when I said, “It’s already been two days.”
Soon after the fall, the continued pain in my arm, the transient-turned-constant burning sensation traveling my arms and trunk and legs, the scary icy walk from a hospital parking lot to teach my clinical on a psychiatric unit, the incapacitating arm immobilizer I had to wear while in the classroom, and my growing and endless fatigue—all of these coalesced at once and propelled me across the finish line of my working life. My denial of having fibromyalgia was slowly unraveling.
I was fifty-eight years old.
Next time, I’ll tell you about how having fibromyalgia swiftly moved me into a new career, a career of defining my pain for myself, searching for effective pain relief, deciding to accept—rather than fight—my diagnosis, and, finally, learning to live with chronic pain.
Meanwhile, Happy New Year to all you faithful readers of Annie’s blog. I’m sure we’re all hoping and praying that she can return soon!