Once upon a time I was a young practitioner who ‘helped’ people in pain.
If you had asked me at the time, I thought I was a pretty good practitioner. I cared about my clients and I made a difference in their lives... Most of the time anyway. There were always those tricky cases where I felt out of my depth. Where I wanted to help, but the client couldn't really be helped any more… Right?
I was a rather fit and healthy individual. I loved to exercise! Hitting the gym and running was my thing. I was addicted to pushing the boundaries, finding extra gears and although I received my fair share of injuries, none really ever stopped me for too long. Until one day, an injury kind of did stop me - really stopped me.
I’d broken eight bones in my right foot.
There was no having a week off sport, no ice packs and rehab program to jump straight into. This was my first real injury and it put me in a moon boot for around 6 weeks. I was lucky to avoid surgery. I could still walk in the moon boot, go out for dinner and do normal things. I could even remove the boot to shower. It really wasn’t that bad.
After six weeks, the boot came off! What a relief! I was able to walk and wear two normal shoes again.
Sadly, only after a matter of hours of walking around, one of the bones in my foot refractured and that meant it was another 6 weeks in the boot to heal the fracture. I was unimpressed to say the least and my short lived high, changed straight back into frustration and unhappiness.
The next 6 weeks went by fast and the boot came off again a few days before my wedding to my wife - where I managed to hop around on one foot for most of the time on the dance floor.
Soon after we had been away on our honey moon and life was pretty good again. The broken foot thing was becoming a thing of the past and I was back out walking and starting to run again.
Over a few weeks I started to up my distance and my foot felt great. I started to notice pain in my hip and I chose to ignore it because I was so sick of being in pain, being kept from doing the things that I wanted to do, I no longer wanted to be inhibited by anything. So I kept on going. And I kept on going until I literally couldn’t any more.
The hip pain started bothering me at work, when I was sitting on the couch, when I was trying to get dressed, when I was doing anything or even nothing and after consulting with some of my colleagues and getting some other opinions it was recommended that I have hip surgery. By that point I was unable to walk very well at all and spent most of my time awaiting the surgery at home barely doing anything and feeling pretty angry, frustrated and sad about the whole thing.
The surgical consultation was a simple one. I was shown an image of my hip. There were signs of a mild and undiagnosed case of hip dysplasia, there were bumps on bones pointed out to me and cartilage that had come away from where it was meant to be. It was for this reason I was recommended to have surgery and I was advised I’d expect to be back at work and walking again within two weeks.
5 months post op, I was still trying to learn how to walk without crutches and was completely unable to go back to work. I felt useless and I could barely remember that strong and powerful version of myself.
Only 6 months earlier, I was anticipating at this point in my life, moving forward with some professional goals and maybe even starting a family, yet here I was. I was unable to work and found myself wondering if I’d ever get the chance to be a father, or what kind of father I would actually be. I certainly wasn’t my usual self. I was less resilient, grumpier and crankier. The things that used to make me feel happy I was no longer able to do. I watched my wife do everything and all I wanted to do was to help, but I couldn’t. I felt like a burden.
After working with no less than 10 separate health practitioners, I was starting to question my entire profession, the entire medical profession and if there was actually going to be any help for me other than the strong pain killers and anti-inflammatories that I was taking just to cope, but were also offering me other terrible side effects to live with.
I was looking for someone, anyone to help me through this time. I was used to being the health practitioner, and I learned by being the client in that relationship how important a therapist's words can be. Sometimes a practitioners words can stick with you and run on repeat in your psyche and there are some comments I won’t ever forget:
- “We were meant to be in your hip for a short time, but your hip was so bad, we’re now running late with our surgeries all day”.
- “I know, you keep complaining about your back. But don’t worry about your back pain, you’re a hip client so we will focus on that”.
- “Your muscles and tendons are so tight I could play your leg like a guitar!”
- “This protocol normally works for 90% of participants, you must be in the 10% so I won’t book you another appointment”.
Eventually, after many failed courses of treatment, I was recommended to see another physiotherapist and the whole experience was different right from the start. I was blown away on my first consultation. The physio called me into his room and I was asked the most questions I had ever been asked by anyone of my practitioners thus far. He listened and provided a physical assessment that not only focussed on my hip but also took into consideration most of my body, my balance and the way that I moved and felt pain. The assessment was thorough and therefore took a lot of time. At the end of the consultation, he looked at me and he told me that he had every reason to expect a full and rather quick recovery and he was able to explain why in a way that made sense to me. From there we set up a plan to move forward.
After paying for the consultation on the way out of the clinic, I was the happiest I had been in months. I had just paid more than double what I had paid for the consultation compared to some of the other clinics I had been to and I was never more happy to do so. I had found someone I trusted, that offered me information, empowered me and that I knew would push me to get the best out of me.
Four weeks later I was walking without crutches and back at work on limited duties.
Another three months later I was running again.
I saw more than one practitioner at that clinic and I was like a sponge, learning everything I could. I remember asking one of the physios one day. “I never learnt this way of assessment or anything like this at uni. How did you guys learn all this?”
I’ll never forget his answer. He said: “Daniel, Uni is just the start of your learning. If you really want to help people I suggest you read these books and do these courses and you should never stop learning.”
It left a mark on me and from there I was on a mission to learn.
My journey with chronic pain has been one of the biggest teachers I have ever had in my life.
I can look back now and understand how so much of my mental health was wound up in the way I was exercising before my injury and how it also played a part in my recovery. I can understand how my support networks and the people I spent time with had an influence on my thoughts and my pain and how a few dedicated, educated and compassionate practitioners broke through to me and had an impact on my life.
After everything I have learned, what makes the most difference in a practitioner is often so simple and obvious:
- Someone that listens.
- Someone that values the client's input.
- Someone that works with the client to help them set their health care goals.
- Someone who educates and empowers their clients.
- Someone who provides a long term management plan, rather than pain focussed or short term management.
- Someone who helps their client realise the power within them, rather than the power within themselves as the practitioner.
Ask anyone experiencing chronic pain and they’ll too tell you that is exactly what they want in a practitioner.
When I was able to get back to work I made a decision that I would do everything in my power to influence health care and revolutionise it from the inside to provide what people in chronic pain need in an evidence based setting.
I have become so passionate about clear communication, strategic diagnosis and providing short and long term management plans based around each clients’ health care goals.
Now I often refer to my experience with chronic pain as the best thing that ever happened to me. I am now grateful that these experiences have offered me empathy, compassion and resilience in myself. It’s also offered me a drive to improve health care for the better. Ultimately, it’s what led me to begin our own multi-disciplinary health clinic: Proactive Health & Movement.
I know my body is not free from pain and I know it never will be.
I understand my body has heightened sensitivity to pain, particularly in certain areas in my body and that’s OK.
I also understand and respect that pain is a teacher and can also be a request for change.
So now, when I feel pain, I listen to the teacher. And if I need to, I choose to make a change