By Mia Maysack, Guest Columnist
As a young girl, swimming and diving were my main passions in life. I spent every day at our neighborhood pool, from the moment they opened it until the second they closed -- even on rainy days. I figured I was already wet and there was a great group of lifeguards. I didn't have a care in the world.
All of that changed at the age of 10 when I developed “swimmer’s ear” -- an infection of the ear canal that is often brought on by water that remains in the ear after swimming. The water creates a moist environment that aids bacterial growth.
After a routine visit for ear drops at a local clinic, I returned home to rest. Within a couple hours, I awoke from a nap feeling stiff from my neck on down. It was as if I were suddenly paralyzed. I was terrified. The next few moments felt like an eternity. If my mother had not come in to check on me, I could have died right there in my childhood bed.
My mom knew something was wrong with her young and healthy daughter, and it wasn't much longer before we were on our way to the hospital. During the ride, I remember feeling the head pain for the very first time.
I also recall feeling upset with my father, because on the way he had all the windows down and I felt so cold. He also had his rock music blasting, which angered me considering how much head pain I was feeling. I did not realize it then, but he was only doing his best to keep me awake - as I was slipping into a coma.
After arriving at the hospital in a wheelchair, I threw up all over my poor dad. After profusely apologizing, I fell into a deep sleep. Days passed without anyone having any idea what was going on. When my desperate mother inquired, she was told, "Every moment Mia survives is a miracle."
Eventually it was discovered my body was fighting a grave infection and emergency surgery was required. The bacteria was harbored within the mastoid bone of my left ear. It should have been a relatively quick fix, but during the procedure the surgeons found the bone so infected that it crumbled into tiny pieces. It required hours of focused and careful work.
After sewing my head shut, I was left to rest in the intensive care unit. It was then that left side of my face began oddly twitching. My family had been through the ringer at this point, but my mother did not leave my side. She noticed this change and called for immediate attention, fearing I was having a stroke or seizure.
It turned out there had been bacteria left behind and it was now attacking my facial nerves, which demanded a second emergency surgery.
This rare experience left me with deafness in my left ear, partial facial paralysis that has turned into permanent facial synkinesis, as well as chronic migraines and daily cluster headaches. Considering the odds I was up against, I often refer to myself as walking miracle. Bacterial meningitis is swift, sometimes deadly and often results in limb removal. So although my entire life had been turned upside down, I knew I was lucky to be alive.
Although I go through life with a positive and gratitude attitude, my head has been hurting every single day since this happened. We had no way of knowing back then that I would live with the consequences of that experience forever. I am thankful to have learned the concept of mortality at a very young age, as that helped to cultivate core values, morals and choices for myself -- which kept me out of a lot of unnecessary trouble other kids my age were getting into.
Upon returning to school, none of my friends wanted anything to do with me. Instead of checking in and asking what happened to me, untrue stories circulated and the teasing began. Children can be downright cruel in middle school and high school, and because I now looked different than everyone else, I was an easy target. I would spend my recess inside the nurse’s office, working with her on facial retraining exercises. I used to glue or tape my eye closed at night, otherwise it would have essentially dried out and I may have suffered vision loss or lost the eye altogether.
Accepting My Differences
I have come a long way since then with overall acceptance and I embrace my differences because they represent my fight for life, health and well-being.
Over all these years, I have tried just about every treatment for my pain that anyone could think of. Medications further complicated things, while neglecting to help with the underlying issues. Diet changes made no difference. Nor did biofeedback, acupuncture, Botox, dry needling, trigger point injections, herbal remedies, massage, and chiropractic. The list goes on and on.
I feel a deeply rooted disappointment with our current healthcare system. We have made many powerful discoveries and improvements in medicine, and the breakthroughs are tremendous for many. I have come across some great personnel within the medical community, however they are few and far between.
Due to my illness being invisible, I am often either treated as though I am overreacting, flat out lying, drug seeking or being dramatic. At one point I was banned from a pain clinic for missing a few appointments because I did not feel safe enough to drive myself.
There is a common attitude toward chronically ill patients, that we are not fully taking responsibility for ourselves or our ailments, and a general opinion within society that we should pop an aspirin and shut up already. If only it were that easy or simple. I wouldn't be here writing this if it was.
Living each day with head pain, among other discomforts, gets in the way of me being able to think straight and living the life I used to envision for myself. Often overlooked or flat out disregarded is the constant losses the chronically ill are forced to navigate through.
For example, I worked very hard to earn a job at the very same hospital that saved my life, but ultimately had to step down because they were unwilling to accommodate my need to work fewer hours. I've also had to drop out of college multiple times because they are not set up to cater to the needs of those who suffer from debilitating pain.
Within the past year and a half, my daily pain scale number of 5/6 has escalated to a 7/8, which has been devastating. Due to high demand, getting in to be seen at a pain clinic (if you are fortunate enough to have one in your area) can take months. When you've been stuck in a cluster headache for 90+ days, it's only natural to feel isolated and alone. There are times I have asked myself how or if I am able to go on like this.
Our health is one of the most important things in life. That truth is what led me to pursue patient advocacy so passionately. I began witnessing other people getting treated the same way that I was, and it sparked a fire to advocate for the sake of them as well.
I am living proof that we are far more than any diagnosis. Positivity has become a survival technique as well as a coping mechanism for me. It has led me down a path of holistic wellness through mindfulness and the humble reminder that -- although things could definitely be better -- they could have been much worse.
Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.