I was recently in a medical center for a visit with my doctor, and on my way to her office, I found myself momentarily captive in an unescapable temporary prison cell. I was riding an elevator twenty-two floors up, with a pair of obtuse, loud and unruly young brothers accompanied by their intensely demure, mousey mother.
After elevating a few floors their mission became apparent as to why they were in the hospital, the trio was going to visit the children’s grandfather who was recuperating after triple bypass heart surgery. The surgery was the result of a massive heart attack the older gentleman had five days earlier. As the elevator’s cables wound back on their spools, the car climbed closer and closer to the twenty-second floor.
With clear distress in her voice, the boy’s mother reminded them, their grandfather would be in a great deal of pain, and he may not seem like his usual jovial self. The two boys immediately began to compare the worst pain each of them had ever experienced. The younger of the two exclaimed, the worst pain he ever felt was “brain freeze” from drinking a frozen Slurpee too fast. The older boy was nearly in tears as he relived sliding down the climbing rope in Gym Class. He was about twelve feet up hanging on the rope with both hands when he began to slip. Instead of letting go and landing on the safety cushion directly beneath him, he hung on tightly and slid down, both hands gripping the rope, burning and tearing his fleshy palms the entire way down. His hands required an antibiotic ointment to be applied twice daily, prior to being wrapped with sterile gauze leaving him with hands, that of a mummy for a full week.
Their mother remained silent as we passed the twentieth floor, she was getting ready to face her greatest pain. She was especially close to her father, in part because she was an only child and because her mother died young. She was old enough to endure the torment, depression and truly deep pain her mother’s death inspired.
Upon arriving at floor twenty-two, the mother led the boys out of the elevator to their grandfathers room, she grew pale and moved in a trance like state with each step toward his room. She knew she was likely to acquire a new high point on her pain scale. A tear welled, she wiped it away quickly. She smiled at her boys and said, “let’s see Poppy now,” as cheerful as possible.
The cheer was a lie, when she saw her dying daddy she confirmed she had indeed felt a new high point, a ten out of ten, on her pain scale. Looking at her frail, confused and small father was overwhelming and horrendously painful. This is the worst pain she has ever endured, this is her truth. As is a young boy’s rope burn, his worst pain ever, a true ten out of ten on a pain scale. And the youngest brother is entirely valid when he reported his worst pain ever was “brain freeze” the result of a quickly consumed Slurpee.
After three more floors up, I got off the elevator and checked into my doctor’s office for my appointment. Included in the paperwork I was asked to complete, was a document titled: The Standardized 1-10 pain scale rating. Question number one asked what was my level of pain today?
I quickly thought through the elevator ride and noted that for individuals, pain is extremely personal. Without understanding what a ten out of ten represents, without knowing the reference point a subject uses to compare their pain, a one out of ten pain scale is entirely flawed and irrelevant.
If the worst pain I’ve ever felt, a ten out of ten, was after I survived a brutal auto accident that left me with multiple broken bones, a ruptured spleen and a punctured lung and this is my truth, the boy with “brain freeze” claiming this is his worst pain ever experienced, should be treated equally. Shots of morphine for pain control for both the auto accident victim and the victim of the dreaded “brain freeze. After all, one mans rope burned palm is another mans double amputation, and loss of sight.
I’ll take the physical pain, a true ten outta’ ten, hurt like a son-of-a-gun pain, over the emotional pain, painless tormenting pain. The physical stuff is easy, temporary. The words, “I hate you, you’re ugly,” or “I’m leaving you” even a simple spit ball shot at the back of my head by a school mate, that, for me, truly is the greatest pain I’ve felt in this life, an absolute ten out of ten on a pain scale.