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Publication Date: Friday, May 09, 2003

Maui to Mountain View -- a journey through pain Maui to Mountain View -- a journey through pain (May 09, 2003)

By Diana Reynolds Roome

When Robb Clothier was 19, his active life was stopped in its tracks. Growing up in a sporting family, he had always played basketball, baseball and fast-pitch softball with his family and friends. One day he was playing baseball with particular intensity because a professional player had joined in the game. Trying to impress him, Clothier raced to retrieve the ball from the edge of the field and jammed his foot into a chain-link fence.

Though his big toe hurt a lot, he could walk and didn't think too much about it at first. The injury was bad enough, however, to see a doctor, who suggested surgery. The operation did not go well, and left him with screws in his foot and a toe that was inflexible as well as painful. A second surgeon took the screws out and tried manipulative treatment, but it left him no better off than before.

Clothier had recently started training to be a physical education teacher at the University if Hawaii, and already the injury was causing him doubts about his career choice. "The injury changed the core of my life," he said. "I couldn't run for long, because the pain got too bad. Student teaching was difficult because you have to be on your feet all day and model sports." It was hard to study because the pain was ruining his concentration, and he was exhausted much of the time.

When it came time to get a job, he knew the demands of a full-time position would be impossible. He visited a third surgeon, followed by another surgery. Yet another physician removed part of the peroneal nerve (along the fibula or outer part of the leg) because by this time the pain was chronic and was interfering with everything Clothier tried to do.

After a procedure that lengthened the tendons in both calves to try to correct the problem of flat-footedness in the injured foot, Clothier was growing withdrawn, moody and had resorted to interacting mostly with the computer at his parents' house in Maui.

"Pain takes you away," he recalls. "It was taking over my life. Everything is on hold when you hurt all the time. Your self-esteem is so far down, you don't want to meet anyone."

He failed to get a job, and his relationship with his girlfriend was suffering. Last September, someone mentioned an organization called For Those in Pain (FTP) in Mountain View, California. He did nothing at first, but while staying at his grandmother's house in Illinois, he hit rock-bottom. When he caught himself crying with pain and depression, he realized it was time to do something.

His sister, who lives in Pacifica, invited him to stay with her. With nothing left to try, he started attending free classes on pain management offered by FTP at Bay Area hospitals. Classes are taught primarily by Beto Telleria, who was a kinisiotherapist or physical education teacher for people with special needs, until two serious spine injuries landed him in a wheelchair and living with pain that seldom leaves him. His early degree in athletic coaching also gave Telleria special insight into Clothier's struggle.

One of the main points his classes aim to teach is that acute and chronic pain are totally different realities. Coping with chronic pain, which ebbs and flows but is always waiting in the wings if not on stage, requires an attitude shift -- one that allows people to accept themselves as they are. Guilt, anger and bitterness are emotions that can often become overwhelming, but they only compound the problem.

At his first class at Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, Clothier was struck when someone said it doesn't mean you're any less of a person when you're hurting. This idea made him realize how shattering it had been to live with pain for seven years. The loss of his career, his relationship, and his recreation had left his confidence and self-esteem in tatters. But the fact that the other people at the class understood what he had been going through made a big difference.

"People who've had chronic pain are more in tune with someone who's hurting," said Clothier. Soon it was working both ways. "Before, when I was fine myself, I wouldn't see other people's pain. I always thought that a person with pain could just say, 'screw it' and not help anybody and only feel sorry for themselves. But pain is like a language -- there are so many people out there with pain and suddenly you can understand it."

Once he started going to pain management classes, he didn't want to stop. His sister took him to his first class, but after a while he was driving himself to classes in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Gatos and Santa Clara. There was always something new to learn, because people were coming from different points on the path to learning to manage pain. "I could grow through hearing their stories, and the reinforcement was very helpful. I could see myself through other people coming new to the class."

This gave a perspective to his own journey.Clothier started volunteering at the day care center where his sister worked near Half Moon Bay, and found himself especially sensitive to children with special difficulties. "If they need a little extra help, I can really relate to that -- and that awareness is a secondary gain for me."

His family supported him, and once his mother placed a call so that she could listen in on a class by phone from Maui. At the same time, Clothier was gaining a community of new friends who stayed and talked after class. It helped to put his own problems into perspective, and he was learning coping strategies, both from Telleria and his classmates.

"There was a time when I'd watch basketball on TV and feel bitter because that wasn't part of me any more. It's hard to let go of that, and it takes work. But I feel a lot stronger now than the person I was before the accident."

On April 26, Clothier attended the second annual conference of For Those in Pain in Mountain View, titled "Pain is a Social Affair," and along with two others received a Phoenix Award. Telleria joked that when early on he told Clothier it was important to attend a class regularly, he took the advice so seriously that he attended all of them. His diligence paid off. In a few months Clothier has moved from solitary resistance to pain to the discovery of a whole community. He has also found a new acceptance of himself and a broader meaning in his life -- whether that ultimately includes pain or not. This is what the phoenix signifies to Telleria, who chose it as the symbol of the organization he founded and directs.

"The phoenix in ancient myth set himself on fire before rising again. You have to make a decision to leave the old you behind. You're not going to rise again until you put the old self away."

For Those in Pain, Inc.,
P.O.Box 1776, Mountain View, CA 94042-177,
Tel:650-968- 2323


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