You’re NOT Broken – Mark Austin, PT
Dealing with an injury or pain is never easy, especially if the problem persists beyond a few weeks and into months or even years. Chronic pain can really interfere with your life as it keeps you from doing the things you enjoy, or from earning enough money, or from enjoying quality time with family and friends. Throw in the regular stressors of life big and small, and secondary aches and pains on top of what you’re already dealing with, and things begin to feel dark and bleak.
“I’m falling apart.” I cannot tell you how many times I have been told this by a patient. I can tell you with certainty that this is never true. You are not falling apart. Your body isn’t broken, and neither is your spirit. In a relatively short amount of time, in part from working near the Fort McMurray oilsands, I’ve seen quite a lot as a physiotherapist: crushed limbs, severe lacerations, fractured spines, ruptured muscles. However, it wasn’t the severity of the injury that determined a patient’s likelihood of successful recovery; it was their attitude.
There have been so many instances of resilience and perseverance demonstrated by my patients. There was a young man with a new baby and wife to support who tore his quad muscle completely from his knee, but in rehab whizzed through step-ups, squats and lunges with a smile on his face. I actually didn’t want to discharge him just because he was so inspiring and motivating to all of the other patients around him. I remember another patient with a major head injury, a severely debilitating but invisible condition, who was shunned by his co-workers, labelled as a ‘faker’ milking the system, and forced off work. He was frustrated by his employer and insurance provider and severely depressed, but by showing up every day and persevering he returned to heavy duty work with a smile on his face. One patient spent almost a year with me while they recovered from a devastatingly large wound to their leg—essentially a gaping hole. They laughed and joked through their exercises despite extreme pain and showed up to every appointment determined to get their life back—and they did.
“However, it wasn’t the severity of the injury that determined a patient’s likelihood of successful recovery; it was their attitude.”
My experiences goes beyond industrial injuries. As a student I worked with a woman who went from being able-bodied to quadriplegic in a few years due to multiple sclerosis. She remained outgoing and social, and fought with tenacity to overcome every barrier in her way, and they were numerous. I’ll never forget how positive and happy she was. Another was abandoned by her spouse after being diagnosed with a chronic illness, but she still laughed and smiled, enjoyed her time with friends and family, and stayed active in her community. In my first year as a physiotherapist, I treated someone who had such severe chronic back pain that they couldn’t sit down without being brought to tears. They relied on oxycotine (a strong opioid painkiller) to get through the day. With some education and direction from me, and with a lot of grit, determination and hard work on their part, they overcame the pain, started working out every day, got the rest of their family exercising with them, and eventually stopped taking pain medication all together.
There are endless stories of human resilience out there, well beyond anything you and I will ever see. My heroes have always been those who overcame the greatest adversities. This includes survivors of the atrocities of war, like holocaust-survivor Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who wrote about his ordeals and subsequent recovery, and stood up for oppressed people around the world. Then there is Louis Zamperini, who survived a plane crash into the ocean and spent 47 days drifting on a raft at sea, only to be caught by his enemies and made a prisoner of war. He survived it all, and years later he visited his prison guards to offer them forgiveness. I recently read about the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, in which from 1914-1917 twenty-eight men were stranded and forced to camp out on arctic sea ice, but through positive thinking and resolution, eventually all survived and returned home.
“Broken only exists if you believe yourself to be broken”
Specific to physical injury, there is Pat Rummerfield, who broke his neck in four places, fractured every one of his ribs, and severed 85% of his spinal cord at the C4 level. Through years of hard work, he defied the odds and learned how to walk and even run again. Mark Zupan, a promising athlete, was thrown from the back of a truck and lied in a canal for 14 hours before he was found. The injury left him wheelchair-bound, but he went on to become a Paralympic champion wheelchair rugby player. When asked if he could change what happened to him, he replied, “No, I don’t think so. My injury has led me to opportunities and experiences and friendships I would never have had before. And it has taught me about myself. In some ways, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” Some of the best things about us are the product of our struggles; personal growth does not happen when everything is going right in our lives.
You cannot be broken. Your body isn’t falling apart. ‘Broken’ only exists if you believe yourself to be broken. Remember that your choices and actions in life are the by-product of your way of thinking, so think positive. Work hard. Be a warrior rather than labeling yourself as a victim. Its okay to be sad or frustrated from time to time—just don’t let yourself get settled in there. Know you are never truly alone in your situation, and no matter how unique and hopeless it may feel, there is someone else out there who has also been there and gotten through it. It doesn’t matter how long you have been in pain, or where you are in your recovery, be it physical, mental or spiritual, life will never take away your opportunity to heal, learn and grow. We are all more resilient than we give ourselves credit for.