Monday, April 03, 2006

Chronic pain puts Focus on Life

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Chronic pain puts Focus on Life



A stroll through Lynda Thomas’ Taylor home is like a journey through the American West. The living room is filled with Native American dolls, drums and pottery — all mementos from travels through Arizona and New Mexico. A totem pole from a Northwest tribe stands just inside the front door, and dishes with a cowboy motif fill a dining room china closet.

It’s a setting born of Mrs. Thomas’ love of all things Western. Her husband, Robert, shares her passion. Together they have taken a number of trips to Indian reservations, national parks and other spots in that part of the country.

Needed tranquility

It’s relaxing, it’s filled with good memories, and it’s an antidote to the daily stresses from a challenging job and a debilitating illness, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, which is a rare disorder of the nervous system.

For the past 16 years, Mrs. Thomas has been a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Community Medical Center, caring for babies born prematurely or with various health problems. Many are in incubators, hooked up to a myriad of monitors and intravenous pumps.

“We hear mothers say, ‘I don’t feel like I’m doing anything for my baby. I feel helpless,’” Mrs. Thomas said. So the nurses do everything they can to help parents, encouraging them to hold their babies when it’s possible, and providing dim lighting and soft music for a soothing atmosphere.

“I like that it’s a challenging field. I like that we can give a chance to these sick babies who years ago would not have been able to live,” Mrs. Thomas said. “When you hold those little babies — and some of them can fit in the palm of your hand — it’s an incredible thing.”

The work is not without difficult moments. One, for Mrs. Thomas, is dealing with drug-addicted mothers whose babies go through withdrawal after they are born. “For the most part they (the mothers) are remorseful. Many are seeking treatment,” she said. “It’s hard not to be judgmental.”

But the rewards are many — from seeing babies go home with their families to seeing them return, as older children, for annual reunions sponsored by the hospital. “It’s amazing to see those kids come back to visit.”

An early experience with her own child helped her appreciate the work of nurses who care for children. When her son, Timothy, was 2, he developed kidney problems and spent a few months at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Mrs. Thomas was by her son’s side 24 hours a day. “I always felt the nurses were caring for me as much as they were for him,” she said, recalling one night when a group of nurses took her out to dinner for a much-needed break.

For the past few years, Mrs. Thomas has worked in the NICU despite some daunting physical challenges. She was diagnosed two years ago with reflex sympathetic dystrophy, also known as complex regional pain syndrome. It’s a disorder that is marked by severe, chronic pain in places like the arms, shoulders, hands, legs and skin that is so sensitive that even clothes cause burning pain. A year ago, Mrs. Thomas had a pump implanted in her abdomen to deliver medicine.

“It’s a chronic, disabling disease with no cure,” she said. Despite her diagnosis, she has not missed a day of work because of her symptoms. But she can no longer go on ambulance transports when babies need to be brought to CMC from other hospitals. Nor can she attend C-section deliveries or lift heavy items.

Husband a big plus

The pain is constant, but Mrs. Thomas credits her sense of humor and supportive co-workers with getting her through each work shift. She also relies on her husband. “He can make me laugh no matter how bad I feel,” she said.

The illness marked a turning point in her life. She appreciates her family and her neonatal work even more, and she looks forward to traveling as long as she is able. “Life is so short,” she said. “And since I got sick, I don’t think I’ll ever take anything for granted again.”

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