Overcoming chronic pain is no easy task, but Tom Norris found ways to survive and thrive.
Conditions: Neck/spinal pain and rheumatoid arthritis
Advice: “Hold onto the good doctors in your life because when you find a compassionate doctor who looks at you like a human being, that’s the one you want.”
Drawing and painting have been second nature to Alayne Gelfand, 59, since she was a young girl. Even through her darkest hours living with chronic pain, Gelfand’s oil paintings and colored pencil sketches have been a source of happiness and satisfaction. “I notice colors in the world,” admitted Gelfand of Corona, California. “Before I see jeans, I see that they are blue.”
While artwork has been a big part of her life from a young age, so has chronic pain. At age 15, she had a serious skiing accident during a trip with her family in northern California. “I looked like an eggplant from black and blue marks after tumbling down the mountain.”
Her injuries went undiagnosed for eight years until doctors discovered a vertical fracture to her cervical spine with extensive nerve damage.
At a regional hospital, she underwent the first of several surgeries to correct her injuries, but three years later she noticed the pain and agony returned. “I was bluntly told over the years that I wouldn’t survive more than a handful of years, that even surgery was not going to solve my problems.”
Gelfand tried to manage her pain with spinal blocks, narcotics, biofeedback, and marijuana. “Over the years, I’ve collected a ‘pit crew’ of doctors, including my pain doctor, rheumatologist, neurosurgeon, and psychiatrist,” said Gelfand. “They are my security blanket and help me get through all my ups and downs.”
On her 45th birthday, she underwent her third surgery, this time to put a metal plate in her neck. Since then, she has felt stronger, more energetic, and experiences less pain. MRIs have actually shown an improvement with her cervical spine. “I don’t believe in miracles, but whatever I’m doing has worked a miracle.”
Gelfand has survived many tough times with the help and support of her close family. Her parents and older sister, Bobbie, have been there for her from the very beginning. “They always tried to relate to what I was going through,” said Gelfand. Her dad felt her struggles personally and almost always went with her to doctor’s appointments. “My sister was always supportive, but until she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and faced her own health challenges, did she understand what I was going through.”
Her family encouraged her to continue drawing and painting throughout her journey as a way to cope and distract herself from chronic pain. Gelfand tried acrylics, pastels, watercolors, but it was really oil paints that she enjoyed the most because of the richness of the colors.
About five years ago, she was having trouble with her right arm while painting so she started painting with her left arm. Eventually, it was too difficult to use oil paints. She looked around her house at all of her art supplies and discovered boxes of colored pencils. She has since developed a technique where she draws the image first, then creates an overlaid grid pattern that she paints to break down the pictures into little fragments of color.
“My artwork has been my escape from the realities of chronic pain,” said Gelfand. “Earlier on, my works reflected my battle with pain and multiple surgeries, but my newer pieces are hopeful as I become more optimistic about my future.”
Read more inspirational stories in Pain-Free Living’s “Portraits of Courage” series.