One Moment Leads to a Lifetime of Pain
A cold New Hampshire day in 1980 changed Beverly Pietlicki’s life forever.
That December, she and a friend were returning from the mountains to see if they could catch the last of the fall foliage. As dusk approached, the air grew colder. “We’d had some rain during the day, and in New England, when it’s rained and the sun goes down and the temperature drops, the road freezes,” Beverly explains.
As they descended the winding road, their car suddenly skated through a patch of black ice and began to spin out of control.
The last thing Beverly remembers is careening toward a granite wall. She lost consciousness as the vehicle ricocheted off the wall, flew across the road, and landed hard by the bank of a river.
Miraculously, Beverly’s friend experienced only minor injuries and was able to scramble back to the road to flag down a car and ask for help. Emergency workers used the “jaws of life,” a hydraulic rescue tool, to extract Beverly from the car so an ambulance could speed her to the hospital.
Beverly had fractured her left ankle in eight places, broken her right hip, and completely dislocated her right ankle. “It was literally hanging off my right leg,” Beverly recalls. She underwent the first of a series of surgeries to reattach her right ankle and begin to repair the fractures in her left one.
Her surgeon had seen similar injuries during the Vietnam War: A soldier would jump from a helicopter but would hesitate to pull the parachute cord because he didn’t want to be spotted by the enemy. “They would wait too long, and the impact on the ground was the same type of thing” as what had happened to her ankles, the surgeon told Beverly.
AN ACTIVE LIFE INTERRUPTED
Before the crash, Beverly, now 62, led an active life. “I was a very strong, outdoorsy girl,” she says, working as a ski instructor and camp counselor, hiking, and participating in her school’s field hockey, track, and cross-country skiing teams. She knew some kind of athletic activity would need to be part of her rehabilitation.
But first, Beverly spent six weeks in the hospital as she underwent additional surgeries to fix the damage. She spent another three months in a wheelchair, then in a leg brace, then using crutches, through the fall of 1981. It was at this point that she took up swimming to try to get some strength back into her legs, gradually working up to three miles a week at the local pool.
But while the acute pain of the crash and subsequent surgeries began to subside, she was left with chronic pain, including post-traumatic arthritis and limited range of motion, that would continue to this day. Despite the operations and rehab work, her ankles never returned to normal. She could no longer ski. “I tried, but it was just too painful,” she remembers. The physical agony of just trying to remove her boots was enough for her to hang up the skis forever.
“I wasn’t the greatest student before my accident, but I threw myself into academics [afterward],” she shares. However, the constant pain in her right leg, back, and ankles was doing a number on her mental health even as she tried to return to a normal life.
“I was young, and I was determined, and I wanted to live my life as normally as I possibly could,” she says. But she was worried that her newly limited mobility would deter potential employers from hiring her.
The worst was the New England winters: she could no longer ski, hike, or enjoy the cold-weather sports she had always loved. “It was too depressing not to be outside in the winter,” she says.
Knowing she needed to keep her spirits up, Beverly decided to move to a place where there was no winter to speak of: Florida. There, she obtained a master of library science degree to get a good-paying job as a public librarian. She married and had two children: a son, now 27, and a daughter, now 22.
LONG-TERM PAIN AFFECTS EVERY AREA OF LIFE
The pain didn’t get better. It was increasingly difficult to compensate when, on bad days, the throbbing turned into sharp stabs if she tried to walk on her damaged ankles. As a librarian, she could ease the pain by sitting at her desk, but she couldn’t sit still all day. More so, it was harder and harder to find the physical strength to care for her children in the evenings after long days at work.
Beverly had a hard time asking for help—after all, she wasn’t in a wheelchair or otherwise showing signs of her disability, so it wasn’t visible to most people. She didn’t want to complain and risk losing her job. “I should have said something, and I never did. I had to make money,” she says now.
The chronic pain also affected her relationships. After the discomfort and pain of getting through the workday, she found she often lost patience with her family when she went home and could let down her guard. Her marriage ended in divorce, and Beverly returned to New Hampshire in 2005 with her two children to start over again.
As a single mother, Beverly found she had to spend even more time on her feet. “Coming home and doing all the household chores was sort of overwhelming,” she says. She worked to keep her weight down to put less stress on her ankles. She also increasingly depended on constant doses of ibuprofen to get her through the day. “I was taking [liquid gel pills] like they were gummy candies,” she says.
By 2012, her health had worsened: Her doctor told her she had stage three kidney disease. “It could be from the overuse of the ibuprofen—maybe it put stress on my kidneys. Who knows?” Beverly says. Her physician’s advice was to stop taking the over-the-counter painkillers.
FINDING WAYS TO COPE
Without pain medication, Beverly had to face the reality of what her day-to-day life entails. “I have permanent disability in both of my ankles and a lack of range of motion,” she says. “I am on disability because of the combination of ailments I have: arthritis, blood clotting, kidney disease, deep vein thrombosis.” An orthopedic doctor has suggested further surgery to fuse her bones, which might reduce the pain, but Beverly is uncertain about going through another surgery.
Now, every activity she contemplates has to be assessed for its impact on her ankles, back, and legs—and that might be worse depending on the weather, how much sleep she’s had, and other factors.
“I don’t vacuum the floor unless I know I can sit in a chair for an hour afterward, so I then have the energy to make dinner,” she says. “I implement these strategies throughout my day so I don’t get overwhelmed, because if I am pushed over a certain point, I am useless—I just want to be left alone, go into a corner, and lick my wounds.”
Beverly has also learned that she needs to be clear about what she is feeling. “Communicating with other people about my pain is hard to do, but I am becoming more and more aware that I have to explain to people that I am in pain,” she says.
She has joined an online chronic pain support group and says that the emphasis on mindfulness has helped her better assess her needs and communicate when she needs to take a step back and rest.
Her husband—Beverly remarried after she moved back to New Hampshire—is adept at finding ways to modify their activities. And Beverly is constantly looking for ways to be useful and productive despite her chronic pain and its resulting limitations.
Even if she can no longer ski, Beverly is still swimming in the summer, taking advantage of New Hampshire’s beautiful Northern Lakes. “I love to be outside,” she says. Sometimes on walks, Beverly even forgets that her ankles hurt until she accidentally missteps and is reminded by the sudden shooting pain. “It’s just something I live with,” she says.
—Calli Barker Schmidt