Chronic Pain Profiles: Kate Nicholson

Overcoming chronic pain is no easy task, but Kate Nicholson found ways to survive and thrive.

Condition: Post-surgical neuropathy

Treatment approaches: Opioids, spinal stimulator, meditation

Advice: “We lose a lot when we undertreat pain. In my case, after other treatments failed, opioids helped tremendously for a time. They don’t work for everyone and should only be used in combination with other integrative treatments and only if more conservative treatments have failed, but for me, they were life-restoring.”

Kate Nicholson was a rising star in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice when suddenly her back started burning with pain. She had just graduated law school two years before, found her dream job and loved living in Washington, D.C. But one typical day at work changed her life forever.

“It was like acid eating my spine. I felt muscles clamping down and threads of fiber clenching like fists to toss me from my chair,” recalls Nicholson. “I landed on the floor, curled up in a fetal position and gasped while my body became electrified by pain.”

Nicholson later found out that the pain was caused by a surgical mishap. She suffered from a severe case of endometriosis in her 20s. During an operation to separate her organs, the surgeon severed spinal nerves affecting her lower back, pelvis, and legs. It was a just matter of time until the damaged nerves would start to grow back and cause her pain and muscular weakness.

Despite her painful experience, she continued with the Justice Department and coincidentally enforced the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities. “Having the somewhat ironic good fortune of working in a disability-rights office, I continued to work and held together a life as best I could, but it wasn’t easy.”

Sitting was nearly impossible for Nicholson so she often sat in a reclining chair at work. She would lie across the back seat of a car during her commute and get around with a walker. Using video teleconferencing, she negotiated with the San Francisco 49ers and Giants and the Walt Disney Company. She won arguments in federal court from a folding lawn chair. She drafted the current regulations under the ADA, coordinated with the White House, and supervised thousands of cases by hundreds of attorneys across the country from a screen and well-camouflaged bed.

Case of chronic pain

Fighting her battle against chronic pain didn’t come as easy as winning court cases. She was nearly bedridden for years, and she tried everything to find relief, including acupuncture, physical therapy, and biofeedback. She underwent surgery to repair the damaged nerves, but that offered no relief. Eventually she started taking a long-acting opioid, supplemented by short-acting therapy to relieve her pain.

Kate’s pain started in the early 1990s when spinal cord stimulators were getting mixed results. But over time, tremendous improvements were made in their efficacy, so Kate also got a Medtronic spinal stimulator. Between the spinal stimulator and a daily practice of a body-based form of meditation in which she learned to lower her heartbeat and blood pressure, she eventually regained her health and ability to walk and eventually went off of opioids.

She moved to Colorado and left the Justice Department to work on her own and became a writer and speaker about the opioid epidemic and finding resilience in life.

“After a 20-year journey through intractable pain and disability, I have arrived at a healthier place,” says Nicholson. “I’m not cured, but I’m off all pain medications and have returned to walking and even hiking.”

Read more inspirational stories in Pain-Free Living’s “Portraits of Courage” series.

Paul Wynn, a writer based in Garrison, NY, is a regular contributor to Pain-Free Living.

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