"They helped me learn to like myself again."
Back in 1973, Tom Isaacson spent a summer as a counselor working at Camp Courage, helping kids with speech and hearing issues. “It helped me pay for college and it reinforced how much I like working with kids,” he said. Isaacson went on to earn a master’s degree, then a principal’s license. He worked in school administration for 22 years, became the Head Start director for Duluth Public Schools, and later led the Early Childhood Family Education Program in Minnetonka schools.
In 1998, his life changed. “I had a tumor that impaired the hearing in my left ear,” Isaacson explained. “After two surgeries, I developed severe headaches and neck pain, which have persisted ever since.” Now deaf in his left ear, he also developed degenerative cervical disc disease in his lower back and depression.
“I tried everything to get healthy and relieve the pain – acupuncture, exercise, nerve blocks, surgery, steroid and Botox injections, and a third surgery to remove nerves in the left side of my neck and head – all without any long-term benefit.” Perhaps not surprisingly, over the many months he attempted to relieve his pain, Isaacson became dependent on medication.
Then, a couple of years ago, Isaacson heard of the Chronic Pain Rehabilitation Program at Courage Center. He attended the comprehensive, three-week program daily, as well as the program’s four-month weekly aftercare segment.
"The program is not about eliminating chronic pain. It’s about learning coping strategies to live with it so that people with chronic pain can return to a functional lifestyle,” he said.
For Isaacson, a functional lifestyle included breaking his dependence on painkillers. According to Patti Pribyl-Brown, his case manager “Tom did very well while in the Chronic Pain Rehabilitation Program. He was motivated to make positive changes in his life and, with assistance from the program’s doctors, worked hard to wean himself off of his narcotics.”
“During Tom’s participation in the program and aftercare, he came off narcotics, improved physically, improved psychologically, and moved on with his life, despite being in pain,” added Nancy Carlson, Ph.D., program director, Psychological Serivces.
“It’s a daily struggle. But I try not to think of it in negative terms,” Isaacson said. “Part of the strategy is to think positively. Pain interferes with positive thinking, but now I’m more proactive. For example, I’m more focused and can plan my day. I set goals for that day and achieve them. The goal might only be vacuuming or grocery shopping, but I accomplish it.”
Isaacson has learned many skills to help him cope with his chronic pain. Relaxation is a major one, and he has explored many paths to achieve it, including biofeedback techniques, meditation, visualizing tranquility, breathing exercises, sleeping skills, exercise, occupational therapy, physical therapy, aquatics work and more. “I’ve also learned the importance of establishing a support system that works,” he says. “For me, that’s Courage Center and its experts, family, friends and my doctor.”
Before the onset of his pain, Isaacson had run more than a dozen marathons. He has since adapted that activity to walking. “My daughter is a runner. My goal now is to someday walk a half-marathon with her. I’ll get there.”
For Isaacson – as well as most people – connection with others is central to maintaining a positive attitude. “Relationships … That’s what’s important. I can walk into Courage Center and be greeted by many people I know. It’s a place where people are treated respectfully and with real compassion. These folks truly know about pain and the impact it has on an individual’s life, how all-encompassing it can be. Seriously, if I had not had the good fortune to connect with the professionals at Courage Center, I doubt that I would still be here on this Earth. I know I would not be self-sufficient and independent! I would have continued thinking of myself as a victim – which I am not. The professionals at Courage Center restored my confidence enough to allow me to take another look at myself. They helped me learn to like myself again.”