Embracing complementary medicine for pain relief
“I always wanted to be someone who served in defense of this country,” says retired Major (O4) Mel Hempstead. “There’s definitely a warrior spirit in my family, which I honor.”
Mel began his military service in 1987, spending two years in the U.S. Navy and then switching to the Army, where he spent 25 years, 10 months, and 15 days. During his decades of service, Mel earned a Meritorious Service Medal, a Joint Services Commendation Medal, Overseas Ribbons, and more—totaling 25 honors. Yet he is modest about his achievements: “I’ve done my share. Others have done more, others have done less,” he says.
Initial injury… and the injury that sent him home
In 2007, Mel was injured in an explosion in Afghanistan. “I was in Kabul, wrong place and wrong time,” he says. Although he was clearly injured, the unit continued their work: “I was on an embedded training team, partnering with Afghan Police and the Afghan National Army, and there weren’t a lot of replacements for guys like me,” he explains.
He worked through the pain… but didn’t want to stick with traditional pain medications forever. So he began exploring complementary techniques like chiropractic, acupuncture, and massage for pain relief.
Those methods kept him active for many years, until an accident in Germany. He was training there, preparing to be assigned to another embedded training team with the Afghans, and was rolled down a hill—sustaining a traumatic brain injury (TBI). “At that point, I had to stay in Germany for treatment—and the Army determined my injuries were too significant and I could no longer serve.”
A long list of ailments
Mel’s injuries and ailments are many and varied. He has left and right shoulder impingements, degenerative spine disease, chronic migraines that stem from his TBI, partial meniscus removal in both knees, and has had 12 different surgeries, including three on his abdomen, two surgeries on each of his wrists, and a throat procedure.
The TBI is particularly challenging, he explains: “You have short-term memory loss, ringing that doesn’t go away, irritability, problems sleeping, and all of that compounds anxiety, depression, and a lot of other things that happen to you after a ‘brain rattle,’” Mel explains.
Through it all, Mel relies on support from his seven children, ages 18 to 35, and his wife Michelle, who he calls his battle buddy. “In the Army, we have buddy teams—but who’s your buddy when you get home? Who’s your buddy if you’re not married, or if your spouse isn’t understanding of your challenges?” he asks.
“Michelle is always there in the room with me, helping me remember what to talk to the doctor about—everyone needs a battle buddy like that,” he says.
Exploring other options for pain
Overseas, Mel received “minor adjustments to keep me going,” in addition to pain medication, but it wasn’t until he came home that he fully dialed into the military’s health care system.
“I wanted to get out of that mode of pain medication,” says Mel. “I want to be able to talk, to be coherent, to function normally—and the medications hamper that.” Mel says his desire to pursue complementary therapies was supported by the Veterans Health Administration (VA), which offered him access to a variety of treatment options.
Part of treating Mel’s degenerative spine disease is done, in part, with radiofrequency sublimation, which uses needles placed in the neck and electrodes that effectively burn the spine, minimizing pain messages from reaching the brain. The treatments take his neck pain from an 8 to a 3 on the 0-to-10 scale, he says.
The residual pain is treated with massage, chiropractic support, and acupuncture, which can take the pain down to a 1 some days. He also uses acupuncture with a stimulation unit, which helps his muscles move more freely and heal faster. This is important, he says, because he pursues strengthening exercises: “The stronger you are, the less pain you feel; the more immobile you are, the more pain you feel,” Mel explains (giving credit for this philosophy from his participation in the Intensive Outreach Program for Chronic Pain Patient at the Landstuhl Military Treatment Facility in Germany).
Mel says acupuncture is just as effective for him as opioid pain medication, but without the side effects: “When it hits the right points, I can have pain relief for anywhere from 24 to 96 hours of relief, sometimes even better than medication—and I can still drive.” Acupuncture minimizes overall pain, which makes it easier to then work with a physical therapist to get back to baseline.
VA incorporating alternative medicine
“Western medicine tends to lean on the pharmaceutical products, without looking at how we can holistically heal the veteran,” says Mel. “You can’t look at us like a list of injuries, like individual pieces—we need to look at what other ways the body can get stronger to help heal the injured areas.”
Mel says the VA is slowly incorporating alternative medicine into its offerings. Through the Veterans Choice program, he is able to get referrals to providers outside the system. But sometimes, he says, “It’s like pulling teeth from a crocodile: you’ll get one eventually, but you may not have any fingers left.” Sometimes it takes weeks for him to get the referrals he needs, but he’s a long-time leader who knows how to work within an organization and secure the treatment and support he needs.
The people who often hold up the process, he says, are lacking some understanding: “Requests and appeals should be processed by someone with the credentials to understand the information.”
Changing life focus—and finding a new career
Mel was forced to retire because of his injuries and pain. He says it’s essential to keep a strong support system in the face of this kind of challenge: “If you’re not careful, pain can destroy relationships. As you go through pain, everything changes about you—you’re more irritable, anxious, and depressed,” he says. “There is no relief. So you tend not to be someone who people want to be around.”
Mel would like to get back to work. He’s currently waiting for accommodations letters from the VA, specifically approval for an adaptive chair, a desk that raises to different heights, the ability to have one day a week set aside for treatment, and the time to complete his Vocational Rehabilitation program. He says it will take about a year to get everything in place; once he does, he hopes to work a regular schedule.
With appropriate treatment and accommodations, he says, “I can’t be a great soldier, but I can be a great civilian.” Mel plans to eventually pursue a Masters degree in Global International Relations.
In the meantime, Mel is staying active and building strength by working out four days a week and using a sauna and steam room the other two days. “Right now I’m in a good space. Positivity is the key.”
Advice for other injured veterans
“Don’t accept ‘no,’” says Mel. “You don’t have to accept living with pain; there are programs out there to help you,” he explains. The VA is there to help you, and there are some really good people who are helping—but others are not up to the task, he says.
“Right now, it’s been the tail wagging the dog with the VA; they need to step up more and help,” says Mel. But it’s also the veteran’s responsibility to shirk any excuses and do the work of healing (like participating in the M.O.V.E. program with the VA).
Mel also reminds us we all must be thoughtful about who we elect to office, because those individuals determine so much of what the VA is able to do for our servicemen and women.
“If you say ‘I support the troops,’ then you need to step up and demand that the VA serve veterans,” says Mel. “If the average citizen wants to become involved, I say don’t choose politicians because of a slanted view—you have to come to the middle of the road, which takes care of everybody. We are all Americans, and we all want to be free—we’ve paid a lot to be free—but freedom isn’t free.”
Wounded Warrior Project: woundedwarriorproject.org
Veterans Health Administration: va.gov/health