Staying Upright—And Helping Others Stand, Too
In 2008, David Simpson was at a capoeira class. This Brazilian martial art is intensely acrobatic, incorporating musical accompaniment and choreography. With its cartwheels and flips, it almost looks like ancient breakdancing. When two people spar, the symmetry is as obvious as the danger inherent should the synchronization fail. In capoeira lurks the possibility of pain.
David was seasoned in a variety of martial arts. He’d sparred countless times. But a single kick, at the age of 28, changed everything.
“It didn’t land,” he recalls. “It was a kind of spasm. I was on the ground in pain for 15 minutes. But I walked out of there.”
Although the acute spasm wore off, he felt as if something insidious was now in his back. More than a decade later, David still thinks about that kick.
AN ACTIVE LIFE STYMIED BY PAIN
David, now 42, grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. After college, he took a job as a production assistant for various companies in New York City, helping manage motion graphics projects for TV shows and music videos. To pass the time, David rollerbladed around NYC and practiced capoeira. After a few years, he moved to Los Angeles to continue his career and continue training.
After the kick that changed everything, David attempted other forms of exercise—yoga and jogging, particularly. The pain in his back persisted and spread upward into his neck. MRIs yielded a diagnosis of spinal stenosis, in which the vertebrae gradually narrow, causing pain by putting pressure on the spinal cord and spinal nerve roots. David’s pain remained manageable, in part thanks to the top-tier health care he had at the time, which covered acupuncture and massage therapy.
But after years in LA, the demands of his work—the deadlines and long hours—became overwhelming and physically draining. David took some time off to backpack through Panama, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, where he enjoyed the culture and change of pace, but dealt with compounding pain.
“Bus rides were really brutal,” he says. “I was walking around with a heavy backpack. After a few months of it, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I came back.”
After flying to a bachelor party ski trip, David found himself lying on the floor of his room, in complete agony.
“My whole upper back was spasming. I basically couldn’t move,” he recalls.
After realizing that his back pain was exacerbated by the long hours he spent hunched over his computer working, David moved back to New York to do freelance work. He searched for affordable out-of-pocket treatment options, but the pain continued to worsen.
TREATMENT VARIES FROM NEIGHBORHOOD TO NEIGHBORHOOD
“I was getting really worried,” David recalls. “I would wake up unable to move my arms. I decided in 2016, after consulting multiple doctors and getting X-rays and MRIs, that I had to have surgery.”
As a freelancer, David was without health insurance because private insurance was too costly.
“I got on Medicare to be able to afford [surgery], and began the process of finding surgeons that would take my insurance,” David shares.
The further David traveled on his road to relief, the more layers of unequal treatment he uncovered. Few hospitals took his insurance, and those that did prioritized people with other insurances. The system in place to provide for folks in his situation was broken, and nothing was being done to fix it.
“I’d go on a hospital’s website to see if they took my insurance, and learn that they were only allowed to take a certain amount of patients with my insurance, or they’re involved in clinics where doctors work shifts to provide for people with Medicare or similar insurances,” he recalls. “So I had to track down doctors who worked in these clinics. No matter what time I was scheduled, I always had a two-to-three-hour wait. Sometimes while waiting I’d have my appointment canceled. So many times, my referrals to spine specialists were lost.”
David also came to learn that the location of the clinic determined the quality of the care, and how seriously patients were taken.
“I was putting so much effort into the research and finding appointments, and getting sent away, and being spoken to rudely and impatiently by staff and also doctors,” he says, explaining how he learned the outsized effect that economic class can have on treatment quality. “A number of times, when I asked a question to a doctor, I was dismissed and asked why I wanted to know certain things. After a lot of failures, I realized that it was a geographic issue, and I needed to go where rich people go. I learned that I needed to go to midtown, to downtown Manhattan, and find the doctors that took my insurance there.”
POST-SURGERY, A NEW NORMAL—AND A NEW MISSION
After working through the roadblocks of insurance, geographics, and demographics, David finally had spinal fusion surgery. This transformed several vertebrae into one long piece of “bone.” The procedure can cause a loss of mobility, and one of the results is increased stress on the adjoining vertebrae as they take on the motion that would otherwise be handled by the fused vertebrae. He ended up needing a second surgery after a screw broke—and finding that out was a battle, too, with one pain management specialist suggesting David see a psychiatrist instead of trying to diagnose his continued pain.
After several years of therapy and rehab to recover from the surgeries, David now works from home to accommodate the need for frequent rest breaks. He has limited range of motion in his neck and a weakened right arm from long thoracic palsy that developed after one of his surgeries.
With his chronic pain and inconsistent quality of health care, David maintains a healthy mental homeostasis. He does tai chi to engage his mind and build his upper body.
He still rollerblades, a movement that keeps him upright, literally and figuratively. And his work has shifted, too.
“I always really felt like I was working so hard, with the express intent of making someone else super rich,” David says. “I myself was making good money, and it afforded me a life I thought I wanted. But one of the reasons I left advertising was because the stress and responsibility was exacerbating my pain. And I never felt like it was a natural fit for me.”
David now takes his creativity, his self-described kaleidoscopic personality, and pours it into nonprofit work. Specifically: video mitigation. He helps produce mini-documentaries, which are used as pre-sentencing evidence in criminal cases.
“In essence, we humanize the person to illuminate what would otherwise just be a crime or indictment number on a rap sheet,” David explains. “If someone is convicted of a crime and is pleading guilty, we create these videos to show to the DAs and the judges with the hopes of establishing the circumstances surrounding the arrest that are significant to why they ended up where they are. For instance, I worked on an immigration case where someone got arrested at 19 for weed possession, and he’s been struggling for years to get residency, and we created a video for him that was successful—they threw out the case, he got married, and is now eligible for citizenship.”
Mitigation videos are not uncommon in the private sector for people with means, but this organization is the first of its kind in New York in the public defender space. Through his experience with chronic pain, David knows this is a world that unevenly spreads its resources: “If you live in the wrong neighborhood, you’re f***ed.”
David continues facing these cold truths, but is working to level the playing field and help others stand up for what they deserve. In the meantime, you can find him rollerblading, staying upright.